North Atlantic ocean circulation and abrupt climate change during the last glaciation

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Science  29 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6298, pp. 470-474
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5529

An ocean of climate impacts

Large decreases in Atlantic meridional overturning circulation accompanied every one of the cold Northern Hemispheric stadial events that occurred during the heart of the last glacial period. These events, lasting on average around 1000 years each, have long been thought to result from changes in deep ocean circulation. Henry et al. used a suite of geochemical proxies from marine sediments to show that reductions in the export of northern deep waters occurred before and during stadial periods (see the Perspective by Schmittner). This observation firmly establishes the role of ocean circulation as a cause of abrupt glacial climate change during that interval.

Science, this issue p. 470; see also p. 445


The most recent ice age was characterized by rapid and hemispherically asynchronous climate oscillations, whose origin remains unresolved. Variations in oceanic meridional heat transport may contribute to these repeated climate changes, which were most pronounced during marine isotope stage 3, the glacial interval 25 thousand to 60 thousand years ago. We examined climate and ocean circulation proxies throughout this interval at high resolution in a deep North Atlantic sediment core, combining the kinematic tracer protactinium/thorium (Pa/Th) with the deep water-mass tracer, epibenthic δ13C. These indicators suggest reduced Atlantic overturning circulation during every cool northern stadial, with the greatest reductions during episodic Hudson Strait iceberg discharges, while sharp northern warming followed reinvigorated overturning. These results provide direct evidence for the ocean’s persistent, central role in abrupt glacial climate change.

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