An astronomically dated record of Earth’s climate and its predictability over the last 66 million years

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Science  11 Sep 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6509, pp. 1383-1387
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba6853

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The states of past climate

Deep-sea benthic foraminifera preserve an essential record of Earth's past climate in their oxygen- and carbon-isotope compositions. However, this record lacks sufficient temporal resolution and/or age control in some places to determine which climate forcing and feedback mechanisms were most important. Westerhold et al. present a highly resolved and well-dated record of benthic carbon and oxygen isotopes for the past 66 million years. Their reconstruction and analysis show that Earth's climate can be grouped into discrete states separated by transitions related to changing greenhouse gas levels and the growth of polar ice sheets. Each climate state is paced by orbital cycles but responds to variations in radiative forcing in a state-dependent manner.

Science, this issue p. 1383


Much of our understanding of Earth’s past climate comes from the measurement of oxygen and carbon isotope variations in deep-sea benthic foraminifera. Yet, long intervals in existing records lack the temporal resolution and age control needed to thoroughly categorize climate states of the Cenozoic era and to study their dynamics. Here, we present a new, highly resolved, astronomically dated, continuous composite of benthic foraminifer isotope records developed in our laboratories. Four climate states—Hothouse, Warmhouse, Coolhouse, Icehouse—are identified on the basis of their distinctive response to astronomical forcing depending on greenhouse gas concentrations and polar ice sheet volume. Statistical analysis of the nonlinear behavior encoded in our record reveals the key role that polar ice volume plays in the predictability of Cenozoic climate dynamics.

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