Research Article

Evolution of Ocean Temperature and Ice Volume Through the Mid-Pleistocene Climate Transition

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Science  10 Aug 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6095, pp. 704-709
DOI: 10.1126/science.1221294

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The Mid-Pleistocene Transition, which lasted from approximately 1.25 million to 700 thousand years ago, was a period during which the dominant periodicity of Earth's climate cycles inexplicably changed from 41 thousand to 100 thousand years. This change is clearly apparent in the oxygen isotopic composition of many calcifying marine organisms, but changes in both ice volume and temperature affect the signal, and so exactly what the signal means has remained unclear. Elderfield et al. (p. 704; see the Perspective by Clark) separated these two effects by measuring both the oxygen isotopic makeup and the Mg/Ca (a proxy that reflects changes in temperature only) of certain benthic foraminifera. The findings reveal the contributions of ice volume and temperature to glacial cycles, suggest when and why the Mid-Pleistocene Climate Transition occurred, and clarify how carbon is lost from the ocean-atmosphere during deglaciations but also changes because of ocean circulation.


Earth’s climate underwent a fundamental change between 1250 and 700 thousand years ago, the mid-Pleistocene transition (MPT), when the dominant periodicity of climate cycles changed from 41 thousand to 100 thousand years in the absence of substantial change in orbital forcing. Over this time, an increase occurred in the amplitude of change of deep-ocean foraminiferal oxygen isotopic ratios, traditionally interpreted as defining the main rhythm of ice ages although containing large effects of changes in deep-ocean temperature. We have separated the effects of decreasing temperature and increasing global ice volume on oxygen isotope ratios. Our results suggest that the MPT was initiated by an abrupt increase in Antarctic ice volume 900 thousand years ago. We see no evidence of a pattern of gradual cooling, but near-freezing temperatures occur at every glacial maximum.

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