Today I came across an interesting article about ocean currents and ice ages, which was published in the early edition of Science on Thursday.
The paper is by Leopoldo Pena and Steven Goldstein and it's about what happened a very long time ago. Around 900,000 years ago, glaciations shifted from happening about once every 41,000 years to only once every 100,000 years. What the scientists describe was a major disruption to the thermohaline circulation between 950,000 years ago and 860,000 years ago. They say that the slowing, or perhaps cessation of deep ocean currents drew down a lot of CO2 from the atmosphere and stabilised the glacials at every 100,000 years.
In a new study in the journal Science, researchers found that the deep ocean currents that move heat around the globe stalled or even stopped, possibly due to expanding ice cover in the north. The slowing currents increased carbon dioxide storage in the ocean, leaving less in the atmosphere, which kept temperatures cold and kicked the climate system into a new phase of colder but less frequent ice ages, they hypothesize.
"The oceans started storing more carbon dioxide for a longer period of time," said Leopoldo Pena, the study's lead author, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "Our evidence shows that the oceans played a major role in slowing the pace of ice ages and making them more severe."
The researchers reconstructed the past strength of earth's system of deep-ocean currents by sampling deep-sea sediments off the coast of South Africa, where powerful currents originating in the North Atlantic Ocean pass on their way to Antarctica. How vigorously those currents moved in the past can be inferred by how much North Atlantic water made it that far, as measured by isotope ratios of the element neodymium bearing the signature of North Atlantic seawater. Like a tape recorder, the shells of ancient plankton incorporate this seawater signal through time, allowing scientists to approximate when the currents grew stronger and weaker off South Africa.
They confirmed that over the last 1.2 million years, the conveyor-like currents strengthened during warm periods and weakened during ice ages, as previously thought. But they also discovered that at about 950,000 years ago, ocean circulation weakened significantly and stayed weak for 100,000 years; during that period the planet skipped an interglacial -- the warm interval between ice-ages--and when the system recovered it entered a new phase of longer, 100,000-year ice age cycles. After this turning point, the deep ocean currents remain weak during ice ages, and the ice ages themselves become colder, they find.
"Our discovery of such a major breakdown in the ocean circulation system was a big surprise," said study coauthor Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty. "It allowed the ice sheets to grow when they should have melted, triggering the first 100,000-year cycle."
You can read the rest at ScienceDaily.com or, if you have a subscription, read the paper at Science.
Leopoldo D. Pena and Steven L. Goldstein. Thermohaline circulation crisis and impacts during the mid-Pleistocene transition. Science, 26 June 2014 DOI: 10.1126/science.1249770