Antarctic ice sheet is result of CO2 decrease, not continental breakup

Climate modelers from the University of New Hampshire have shown that the most likely explanation for the initiation of Antarctic glaciation during a major climate shift 34 million years ago was decreased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. The finding counters a 40-year-old theory suggesting massive rearrangements of Earth’s continents caused global cooling and the abrupt formation of the Antarctic ice sheet. It will provide scientists insight into the climate change implications of current rising global CO2 levels.

In a paper published today in Nature, Matthew Huber of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space and department of Earth sciences provides evidence that the long-held, prevailing theory known as “Southern Ocean gateway opening” is not the best explanation for the climate shift that occurred during the Eocene-Oligocene transition when Earth’s polar regions were ice-free.

“The Eocene-Oligocene transition was a major event in the history of the planet and our results really flip the whole story on its head,” says Huber. “The textbook version has been that gateway opening, in which Australia pulled away from Antarctica, isolated the polar continent from warm tropical currents, and changed temperature gradients and circulation patterns in the ocean around Antarctica, which in turn began to generate the ice sheet. We’ve shown that, instead, CO2-driven cooling initiated the ice sheet and that this altered ocean circulation.”

Huber adds that the gateway theory has been supported by a specific, unique piece of evidence-a “fingerprint” gleaned from oxygen isotope records derived from deep-sea sediments. These sedimentary records have been used to map out gradient changes associated with ocean circulation shifts that were thought to bear the imprint of changes in ocean gateways.

Although declining atmospheric levels of CO2 has been the other main hypothesis used to explain the Eocene-Oligocene transition, previous modeling efforts were unsuccessful at bearing this out because the CO2 drawdown does not by itself match the isotopic fingerprint. It occurred to Huber’s team that the fingerprint might not be so unique and that it might also have been caused indirectly from CO2 drawdown through feedbacks between the growing Antarctic ice sheet and the ocean.

Says Huber, “One of the things we were always missing with our CO2 studies, and it had been missing in everybody’s work, is if conditions are such to make an ice sheet form, perhaps the ice sheet itself is affecting ocean currents and the climate system-that once you start getting an ice sheet to form, maybe it becomes a really active part of the climate system and not just a passive player.”

For their study, Huber and colleagues used brute force to generate results: they simply modeled the Eocene-Oligocene world as if it contained an Antarctic ice sheet of near-modern size and shape and explored the results within the same kind of coupled ocean-atmosphere model used to project future climate change and across a range of CO2 values that are likely to occur in the next 100 years (560 to 1200 parts per million).

“It should be clear that resolving these two very different conceptual models for what caused this huge transformation of the Earth’s surface is really important because today as a global society we are, as I refer to it, dialing up the big red knob of carbon dioxide but we’re not moving continents around.”

Just what caused the sharp drawdown of CO2 is unknown, but Huber points out that having now resolved whether gateway opening or CO2 decline initiated glaciation, more pointed scientific inquiry can be focused on answering that question.

Huber notes that despite his team’s finding, the gateway opening theory won’t now be shelved, for that massive continental reorganization may have contributed to the CO2 drawdown by changing ocean circulation patterns that created huge upwellings of nutrient-rich waters containing plankton that, upon dying and sinking, took vast loads of carbon with them to the bottom of the sea.

Ancient ocean currents may have changed pace and intensity of ice ages

About 950,000 years ago, North Atlantic currents and northern hemisphere ice sheets underwent changes. -  NASA
About 950,000 years ago, North Atlantic currents and northern hemisphere ice sheets underwent changes. – NASA

Climate scientists have long tried to explain why ice-age cycles became longer and more intense some 900,000 years ago, switching from 41,000-year cycles to 100,000-year cycles.

In a paper published this week in the journal Science, researchers report that the deep ocean currents that move heat around the globe stalled or may have stopped at that time, possibly due to expanding ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere.

“The research is a breakthrough in understanding a major change in the rhythm of Earth’s climate, and shows that the ocean played a central role,” says Candace Major, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

The slowing currents increased carbon dioxide (CO2) storage in the oceans, leaving less CO2 in the atmosphere. That kept temperatures cold and kicked the climate system into a new phase of colder, but less frequent, ice ages, the scientists believe.

“The oceans started storing more carbon dioxide for a longer period of time,” says Leopoldo Pena, the paper’s lead author and a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). “Our evidence shows that the oceans played a major role in slowing the pace of the ice ages and making them more severe.”

The researchers reconstructed the past strength of Earth’s system of 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 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 tape recorders, the shells of ancient plankton incorporate these seawater signals through time, allowing scientists to approximate when currents grew stronger and when weaker.

Over the last 1.2 million years, the conveyor-like currents strengthened during warm periods and lessened during ice ages, as previously thought.

But at about 950,000 years ago, ocean circulation slowed significantly and stayed weak for 100,000 years.

During that period the planet skipped an interglacial–the warm interval between ice ages. When the system recovered, it entered a new phase of longer, 100,000-year ice age cycles.

After this turning point, deep ocean currents remained weak during ice ages, and ice ages themselves became colder.

“Our discovery of such a major breakdown in the ocean circulation system was a big surprise,” said paper co-author Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at LDEO. “It allowed the ice sheets to grow when they should have melted, triggering the first 100,000-year cycle.”

Ice ages come and go at predictable intervals based on the changing amount of sunlight that falls on the planet, due to variations in Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Orbital changes alone, however, are not enough to explain the sudden switch to longer ice age intervals.

According to one earlier hypothesis for the transition, advancing glaciers in North America stripped away soils in Canada, causing thicker, longer-lasting ice to build up on the remaining bedrock.

Building on that idea, the researchers believe that the advancing ice might have triggered the slowdown in deep ocean currents, leading the oceans to vent less carbon dioxide, which suppressed the interglacial that should have followed.

“The ice sheets must have reached a critical state that switched the ocean circulation system into a weaker mode,” said Goldstein.

Neodymium, a key component of cellphones, headphones, computers and wind turbines, also offers a good way of measuring the vigor of ancient ocean currents.

Goldstein and colleagues had used neodymium ratios in deep-sea sediment samples to show that ocean circulation slowed during past ice ages.

They used the same method to show that changes in climate preceded changes in ocean circulation.

A trace element in Earth’s crust, neodymium washes into the oceans through erosion from the continents, where natural radioactive decay leaves a signature unique to the land mass from which it originated.

When Goldstein and Lamont colleague Sidney Hemming pioneered this method in the late 1990s, they rarely worried about surrounding neodymium contaminating their samples.

The rise of consumer electronics has changed that.

“I used to say you could do sample processing for neodymium analysis in a parking lot,” said Goldstein. “Not anymore.”

Modern ocean acidification is outpacing ancient upheaval, study suggests

<IMG SRC="/Images/964394569.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="237" BORDER="0" ALT="The deep-sea benthic foram Aragonia velascoensis went extinct about 56 million years ago as the oceans rapidly acidified. – Ellen Thomas/Yale University”>
The deep-sea benthic foram Aragonia velascoensis went extinct about 56 million years ago as the oceans rapidly acidified. – Ellen Thomas/Yale University

Some 56 million years ago, a massive pulse of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere sent global temperatures soaring. In the oceans, carbonate sediments dissolved, some organisms went extinct and others evolved.

Scientists have long suspected that ocean acidification played a part in the crisis-similar to today, as manmade CO2 combines with seawater to change its chemistry. Now, for the first time, scientists have quantified the extent of surface acidification from those ancient days, and the news is not good: the oceans are on track to acidify at least as much as they did then, only at a much faster rate.

In a study published in the latest issue of Paleoceanography, the scientists estimate that surface ocean acidity increased by about 100 percent in a few thousand years or more, and stayed that way for the next 70,000 years. In this radically changed environment, some creatures died out while others adapted and evolved. The study is the first to use the chemical composition of fossils to reconstruct surface ocean acidity at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a period of intense warming on land and throughout the oceans due to high CO2.

“This could be the closest geological analog to modern ocean acidification,” said study coauthor Bärbel Hönisch, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “As massive as it was, it still happened about 10 times more slowly than what we are doing today.”

The oceans have absorbed about a third of the carbon humans have pumped into the air since industrialization, helping to keep temperatures lower than they would be otherwise. But that uptake of carbon has come at a price. Chemical reactions caused by that excess CO2 have made seawater grow more acidic, depleting it of the carbonate ions that corals, mollusks and calcifying plankton need to build their shells and skeletons.

In the last 150 years or so, the pH of the oceans has dropped substantially, from 8.2 to 8.1–equivalent to a 25 percent increase in acidity. By the end of the century, ocean pH is projected to fall another 0.3 pH units, to 7.8. While the researchers found a comparable pH drop during the PETM–0.3 units–the shift happened over a few thousand years.

“We are dumping carbon in the atmosphere and ocean at a much higher rate today-within centuries,” said study coauthor Richard Zeebe, a paleoceanographer at the University of Hawaii. “If we continue on the emissions path we are on right now, acidification of the surface ocean will be way more dramatic than during the PETM.”

Ocean acidification in the modern ocean may already be affecting some marine life, as shown by the partly dissolved shell of this planktic snail, or pteropod, caught off the Pacific Northwest.


The study confirms that the acidified conditions lasted for 70,000 years or more, consistent with previous model-based estimates.

“It didn’t bounce back right away,” said Timothy Bralower, a researcher at Penn State who was not involved in the study. “It took tens of thousands of years to recover.”

From seafloor sediments drilled off Japan, the researchers analyzed the shells of plankton that lived at the surface of the ocean during the PETM. Two different methods for measuring ocean chemistry at the time-the ratio of boron isotopes in their shells, and the amount of boron –arrived at similar estimates of acidification. “It’s really showing us clear evidence of a change in pH for the first time,” said Bralower.

What caused the burst of carbon at the PETM is still unclear. One popular explanation is that an overall warming trend may have sent a pulse of methane from the seafloor into the air, setting off events that released more earth-warming gases into the air and oceans. Up to half of the tiny animals that live in mud on the seafloor-benthic foraminifera-died out during the PETM, possibly along with life further up the food chain.

Other species thrived in this changed environment and new ones evolved. In the oceans, dinoflagellates extended their range from the tropics to the Arctic, while on land, hoofed animals and primates appeared for the first time. Eventually, the oceans and atmosphere recovered as elements from eroded rocks washed into the sea and neutralized the acid.

Today, signs are already emerging that some marine life may be in trouble. In a recent study led by Nina Bednarsek at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half of the tiny planktic snails, or pteropods, that she and her team studied off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California showed badly dissolved shells. Ocean acidification has been linked to the widespread death of baby oysters off Washington and Oregon since 2005, and may also pose a threat to coral reefs, which are under additional pressure from pollution and warming ocean temperatures.

“Seawater carbonate chemistry is complex but the mechanism underlying ocean acidification is very simple,” said study lead author Donald Penman, a graduate student at University of California at Santa Cruz. “We can make accurate predictions about how carbonate chemistry will respond to increasing carbon dioxide levels. The real unknown is how individual organisms will respond and how that cascades through ecosystems.”

Solving the puzzle of ice age climates

The paleoclimate record for the last ice age – a time 21,000 years ago called the “Last Glacial Maximum” (LGM) – tells of a cold Earth whose northern continents were covered by vast ice sheets. Chemical traces from plankton fossils in deep-sea sediments reveal rearranged ocean water masses, as well as extended sea ice coverage off Antarctica. Air bubbles in ice cores show that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was far below levels seen before the Industrial Revolution.

While ice ages are set into motion by Earth’s slow wobbles in its transit around the sun, researchers agree that the solar-energy decrease alone wasn’t enough to cause this glacial state. Paleoclimatologists have been trying to explain the actual mechanism behind these changes for 200 years.

“We have all these scattered pieces of information about changes in the ocean, atmosphere, and ice cover,” says Raffaele Ferrari, the Breene M. Kerr Professor of Physical Oceanography in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, “and what we really want to see is how they all fit together.”

Researchers have always suspected that the answer must lie somewhere in the oceans. Powerful regulators of Earth’s climate, the oceans store vast amounts of organic carbon for thousands of years, keeping it from escaping into the atmosphere as CO2. Seawater also takes up CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesizing microbes at the surface, and via circulation patterns.

In a new application of ocean physics, Ferrari, along with Malte Jansen PhD ’12 of Princeton University and others at the California Institute of Technology, have found a new approach to the puzzle, which they detail in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lung of the ocean


The researchers focused on the Southern Ocean, which encircles Antarctica – a critical part of the carbon cycle because it provides a connection between the atmosphere and the deep ocean abyss. Ruffled by the winds whipping around Antarctica, the Southern Ocean is one of the only places where the deepest carbon-rich waters ever rise to the surface, to “breathe” CO2 in and out.

The modern-day Southern Ocean has a lot of room to breathe: Deeper, carbon-rich waters are constantly mixing into the waters above, a process enhanced by turbulence as water runs over jagged, deep-ocean ridges.

But during the LGM, permanent sea ice covered much more of the Southern Ocean’s surface. Ferrari and colleagues decided to explore how that extended sea ice would have affected the Southern Ocean’s ability to exchange CO2 with the atmosphere.

Shock to the system


This question demanded the use of the field’s accumulated knowledge of ocean physics. Using a mathematical equation that describes the wind-driven ocean circulation patterns around Antarctica, the researchers calculated the amount of water that was trapped under the sea ice by currents in the LGM. They found that the shock to the entire Earth from this added ice cover was massive: The ice covered the only spot where the deep ocean ever got to breathe. Since the sea ice capped these deep waters, the Southern Ocean’s CO2 was never exhaled to the atmosphere.

The researchers then saw a link between the sea ice change and the massive rearrangement of ocean waters that is evident in the paleoclimate record. Under the expanded sea ice, a greater amount of upwelled deep water sank back downward. Southern Ocean abyssal water eventually filled a greater volume of the entire midlevel and lower ocean – lifting the interface between upper and lower waters to a shallower depth, such that the deep, carbon-rich waters lost contact with the upper ocean. Breathing less, the ocean could store a lot more carbon.

A Southern Ocean suffocated by sea ice, the researchers say, helps explain the big drop in atmospheric CO2 during the LGM.

Dependent relationship


The study suggests a dynamic link between sea-ice expansion and the increase of ocean water insulated from the atmosphere, which the field has long treated as independent events. This insight takes on extra relevance in light of the fact that paleoclimatologists need to explain not just the very low levels of atmospheric CO2 during the last ice age, but also the fact that this happened during each of the last four glacial periods, as the paleoclimate record reveals.

Ferrari says that it never made sense to argue that independent changes drew down CO2 by the exact same amount in every ice age. “To me, that means that all the events that co-occurred must be incredibly tightly linked, without much freedom to drift beyond a narrow margin,” he says. “If there is a causality effect among the events at the start of an ice age, then they could happen in the same ratio.”

Ancient sea-levels give new clues on ice ages

International researchers, led by the Australian National University (ANU), have developed a new way to determine sea-level changes and deep-sea temperature variability over the past 5.3 million years.

The findings will help scientists better understand the climate surrounding ice ages over the past two million years, and could help determine the relationship between carbon dioxide levels, global temperatures and sea levels.

The team from ANU, the University of Southampton (UoS) and the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in the United Kingdom, examined oxygen isotope levels in fossils of microscopic plankton recovered from the Mediterranean Sea, dating back as far as 5.3 million years.

“This is the first step for reconstructions from the Mediterranean records,” says lead researcher Eelco Rohling from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences.

Professor Rohling said the team focused on the flow of water through Strait of Gibraltar, which was particularly sensitive to sea-level changes.

“As continental ice sheets grew during the ice ages, flow through the Strait of Gibraltar was reduced, causing measurable changes in oxygen isotope ratios in Mediterranean waters, which became preserved in the shells of the ancient plankton,” he said.

Co-author Gavin Foster from UoS said the research for the first time found long-term trends in cooling and continental ice-volume build-up cycles over the past 5.3 Million years were not the same.

“In fact, for temperature the major step toward the ice ages of the past two million years was a cooling event at 2.7 million years ago,” he said.

“But for ice-volume, the crucial step was the development of the first intense ice age at around 2.15 million years ago. Before our results, these were thought to have occurred together at about 2.5 million years ago.”
Professor Rohling said the findings will help scientists better understand the nature of ice ages and development of coastal sediment.

“The observed decoupling of temperature and ice-volume changes provides crucial new information for our understanding of how the ice ages came about,” he said.

“However, there are wider implications. For example, a more refined sea-level record over millions of years is commercially interesting because it allows a better understanding of coastal sediment sequences that are relevant to the petroleum industry.

“Our record is also of interest to climate policy developments, because it opens the door to detailed comparisons between past atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, global temperatures, and sea levels, which has enormous value to long-term future climate projections.”

The findings have been published in the latest on-line edition of Nature.

Study provides crucial new information about how the ice ages came about

An international team of scientists has discovered new relationships between deep-sea temperature and ice-volume changes to provide crucial new information about how the ice ages came about.

Researchers from the University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre and the Australian National University developed a new method for determining sea-level and deep-sea temperature variability over the past 5.3 million years. It provides new insight into the climatic relationships that caused the development of major ice-age cycles during the past two million years.

The researchers found, for the first time, that the long-term trends in cooling and continental ice-volume cycles over the past 5.3 million years were not the same. In fact, for temperature the major step toward the ice ages that have characterised the past two to three million years was a cooling event at 2.7 million years ago, but for ice-volume the crucial step was the development of the first intense ice age at around 2.15 million years ago. Before these results, these were thought to have occurred together at about 2.5 million years ago.

The results are published in the scientific journal Nature.

Co-author Dr Gavin Foster, from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, says: “Our work focused on the discovery of new relationships within the natural Earth system. In that sense, the observed decoupling of temperature and ice-volume changes provides crucial new information for our understanding of how the ice ages developed.

“However, there are wider implications too. For example, a more refined sea-level record over millions of years is commercially interesting because it allows a better understanding of coastal sediment sequences that are relevant to the petroleum industry. Our record is also of interest to climate policy developments, because it opens the door to detailed comparisons between past atmospheric CO2 concentrations, global temperatures, and sea levels, which has enormous value to long-term future climate projections.”

The team used records of oxygen isotope ratios (which provide a record of ancient water temperature) from microscopic plankton fossils recovered from the Mediterranean Sea, spanning the last 5.3 million years. This is a particularly useful region because the oxygen isotopic composition of the seawater is largely determined by the flow of water through the Strait of Gibraltar, which in turn is sensitive to changes in global sea level – in a way like the pinching of a hosepipe.

As continental ice sheets grew during the ice ages, flow through the Strait of Gibraltar was reduced, causing measurable increases in the oxygen isotope O-18 (8 protons and 10 neutrons) relative to O-16 (8 protons and 8 neutrons) in Mediterranean waters, which became preserved in the shells of the ancient plankton. Using long drill cores and uplifted sections of sea-floor sediments, previous work had analysed such microfossil-based oxygen isotope records from carefully dated sequences.

The current study added a numerical model for calculating water exchange through the Strait of Gibraltar as a function of sea-level change, which allowed the microfossil records to be used as a sensitive recorder of global sea-level changes. The new sea-level record was then used in combination with existing deep-sea oxygen isotope records from the open ocean, to work out deep-sea temperature changes.

Lead author, Professor Eelco Rohling of Australian National University, says: “This is the first step for reconstructions from the Mediterranean records. Our previous work has developed and refined this technique for Red Sea records, but in that location it is restricted to the last half a million years because there are no longer drill cores. In the Mediterranean, we could take it down all the way to 5.3 million years ago. There are uncertainties involved, so we included wide-ranging assessments of these, as well as pointers to the most promising avenues for improvement. This work lays the foundation for a concentrated effort toward refining and improving the new sea-level record.”

Noting the importance of the Strait of Gibraltar to the analysis, co-author Dr Mark Tamisiea from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton adds: “Flow through the Strait will depend not only on the ocean’s volume, but also on how the land in the region moves up and down in response to the changing water levels. We use a global model of changes in the ocean and the ice sheets to estimate the deformation and gravity changes in the region, and how that will affect our estimate of global sea-level change.”

Dust in the wind drove iron fertilization during ice age

Nitrogen is a critical building block for marine algae, yet the plankton in the Southern Ocean north of Antarctica leave much of it unused partly because they lack another needed nutrient, iron. The late John Martin hypothesized that dust-borne iron carried to the region by winds during ice ages may have fertilized the marine algae, allowing more of the Southern Ocean nitrogen to be used for growth and thus drawing CO2 into the ocean.  
To confirm Martin's hypothesis, the researchers measured isotopes of nitrogen in a sediment sample collected from a site that lies within the path of the winds that deposit iron-laden dust in the Subantarctic zone of the Southern Ocean (labeled ODP Site 1090). They found that the ratios of the types of nitrogen in the sample coincided with the predictions of Martin's hypothesis. The colors indicate simulated ice-age dust deposition from low to high (blue to red). The black contour lines show the concentrations of nitrate (a form of nitrogen) in modern surface waters. -  Image courtesy of Alfredo Martínez-García of ETH Zurich and Science/American Association for the Advancement of Science
Nitrogen is a critical building block for marine algae, yet the plankton in the Southern Ocean north of Antarctica leave much of it unused partly because they lack another needed nutrient, iron. The late John Martin hypothesized that dust-borne iron carried to the region by winds during ice ages may have fertilized the marine algae, allowing more of the Southern Ocean nitrogen to be used for growth and thus drawing CO2 into the ocean.
To confirm Martin’s hypothesis, the researchers measured isotopes of nitrogen in a sediment sample collected from a site that lies within the path of the winds that deposit iron-laden dust in the Subantarctic zone of the Southern Ocean (labeled ODP Site 1090). They found that the ratios of the types of nitrogen in the sample coincided with the predictions of Martin’s hypothesis. The colors indicate simulated ice-age dust deposition from low to high (blue to red). The black contour lines show the concentrations of nitrate (a form of nitrogen) in modern surface waters. – Image courtesy of Alfredo Martínez-García of ETH Zurich and Science/American Association for the Advancement of Science

Researchers from Princeton University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich have confirmed that during the last ice age iron fertilization caused plankton to thrive in a region of the Southern Ocean.

The study published in Science confirms a longstanding hypothesis that wind-borne dust carried iron to the region of the globe north of Antarctica, driving plankton growth and eventually leading to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Plankton remove the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere during growth and transfer it to the deep ocean when their remains sink to the bottom. Iron fertilization has previously been suggested as a possible cause of the lower CO2 levels that occur during ice ages. These decreases in atmospheric CO2 are believed to have “amplified” the ice ages, making them much colder, with some scientists believing that there would have been no ice ages at all without the CO2 depletion.

Iron fertilization has also been suggested as one way to draw down the rising levels of CO2 associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Improved understanding of the drivers of ocean carbon storage could lead to better predictions of how the rise in manmade carbon dioxide will affect climate in the coming years.

The role of iron in storing carbon dioxide during ice ages was first proposed in 1990 by the late John Martin, an oceanographer at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California who made the landmark discovery that iron limits plankton growth in large regions of the modern ocean.

Based on evidence that there was more dust in the atmosphere during the ice ages, Martin hypothesized that this increased dust supply to the Southern Ocean allowed plankton to grow more rapidly, sending more of their biomass into the deep ocean and removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Martin focused on the Southern Ocean because its surface waters contain the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in abundance, allowing plankton to be fertilized by iron without running low on these necessary nutrients.

The research confirms Martin’s hypothesis, said Daniel Sigman, Princeton’s Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences, and a co-leader of the study. “I was an undergraduate when Martin published his ‘ice age iron hypothesis,'” he said. “I remember being captivated by it, as was everyone else at the time. But I also remember thinking that Martin would have to be the luckiest person in the world to pose such a simple, beautiful explanation for the ice age CO2 paradox and then turn out to be right about it.”

Previous efforts to test Martin’s hypothesis established a strong correlation of cold climate, high dust and productivity in the Subantarctic region, a band of ocean encircling the globe between roughly 40 and 50 degrees south latitude that lies in the path of the winds that blow off South America, South Africa and Australia. However, it was not clear whether the productivity was due to iron fertilization or the northward shift of a zone of naturally occurring productivity that today lies to the south of the Subantarctic. This uncertainty was made more acute by the finding that ice age productivity was lower in the Antarctic Ocean, which lies south of the Subantarctic region.

To settle the matter, the research groups of Sigman at Princeton and Gerald Haug and Tim Eglinton at ETH Zurich teamed up to use a new method developed at Princeton. They analyzed fossils found in deep sea sediment -deposited during the last ice age in the Subantarctic region – with the goal of reconstructing past changes in the nitrogen concentration of surface waters and combining the results with side-by-side measurements of dust-borne iron and productivity. If the dust-borne iron fertilization hypothesis was correct, then nitrogen would have been more completely consumed by the plankton, leading to lower residual nitrogen concentrations in the surface waters. In contrast, if the productivity increases were in response to a northward shift in ocean conditions, then nitrogen concentrations would have risen.

The researchers measured the ratio of nitrogen isotopes, which have the same number of protons but differing numbers of neutrons, that were preserved within the carbonate shells of a group of marine microfossils called foraminifera. The investigators found that nitrogen concentrations indeed declined during the cold periods when iron deposition and productivity rose, in a manner consistent with the dust-borne iron fertilization theory. Ocean models as well as the strong correlation of the sediment core changes with the known changes in atmospheric CO2 suggest that this iron fertilization of Southern Ocean plankton can explain roughly half of the CO2 decline during peak ice ages.

Although Martin had proposed that purposeful iron addition to the Southern Ocean could reduce the rise in atmospheric CO2, Sigman noted that the amount of CO2 removed though iron fertilization is likely to be minor compared to the amount of CO2 that humans are now pushing into the atmosphere.

“The dramatic fertilization that we observed during ice ages should have caused a decline in atmospheric CO2 over hundreds of years, which was important for climate changes over ice age cycles,” Sigman said. “But for humans to duplicate it today would require unprecedented engineering of the global environment, and it would still only compensate for less than 20 years of fossil fuel burning.”

Edward Brook, a paleoclimatologist at Oregon State University who was not involved in the research, said, “This group has been doing a lot of important work in this area for quite a while and this an important advance. It will be interesting to see if the patterns they see in this one spot are consistent with variations in other places relevant to global changes in carbon dioxide.”

Reading ancient climate from plankton shells

This is a CT reconstruction of a foram measured at the Diamond Light Source. -  Oscar Branson, University of Cambridge
This is a CT reconstruction of a foram measured at the Diamond Light Source. – Oscar Branson, University of Cambridge

Climate changes from millions of years ago are recorded at daily rate in ancient sea shells, new research shows.

A huge X-ray microscope has revealed growth bands in plankton shells that show how shell chemistry records the sea temperature.

The results could allow scientists to chart short timescale changes in ocean temperatures hundreds of millions of years ago.

Plankton shells show features like tree rings, recording historical climate.

It’s important to understand current climate change in the light of how climate has varied in the geological past. One way to do this, for the last few thousand years, is to analyse ice from the poles. The planet’s temperature and atmosphere are recorded by bubbles of ancient air trapped in polar ice cores. The oldest Antarctic ice core records date back to around 800,000 years ago.

Results just published in the journal Earth and Planetary Sciences Letters reveal how ancient climate change, pushing back hundreds of millions of years ago into deep time, is recorded by the shells of oceanic plankton.

As microbial plankton grow in ocean waters, their shells, made of the mineral calcite, trap trace amounts of chemical impurities, maybe only a few atoms in a million getting replaced by impurity atoms. Scientists have noticed that plankton growing in warmer waters contain more impurities, but it has not been clear how and why this “proxy” for temperature works.

When the plankton die, they fall to the muddy ocean floor, and can be recovered today from that muddy ocean floor sediments, which preserve the shells as they are buried. The amount of impurity, measured in fossil plankton shells, provides a record of past ocean temperature, dating back more than 100 million years ago.

Now, researchers from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge have measured traces of magnesium in the shells of plankton using an X-ray microscope in Berkeley, California, at the “Advanced Light Source” synchrotron – a huge particle accelerator that generates X-rays to study matter in minuscule detail.

The powerful X-ray microscope has revealed narrow nanoscale bands in the plankton shell where the amount of magnesium is very slightly higher, at length scales as small as one hundredth that of a human hair. They are growth bands, rather like tree rings, but in plankton the bands occur daily or so, rather than yearly.

“These growth bands in plankton show the day by day variations in magnesium in the shell at a 30 nanometre length scale. For slow-growing plankton it opens the way to seeing seasonal variations in ocean temperatures or plankton growth in samples dating back tens to hundreds of millions of years”, says Professor Simon Redfern, one of the experimenters on the project.

“Our X-ray data show that the trace magnesium sits inside the crystalline mineral structure of the plankton shell. That’s important because it validates previous assumptions about using magnesium contents as a measure of past ocean temperature.”

The chemical environment of the trace elements in the plankton shell, revealed in the new measurements, shows that the magnesium sits in calcite crystal replacing calcium, rather than in microbial membranes in their impurities in the shell. This helps explain why temperature affects the chemistry of plankton shells – warmer waters favour increased magnesium in calcite.

The group are now using the UK’s “Diamond” synchrotron X-ray facility to measure how plankton shells grow and whether they change at all in the ocean floor sediments. Their latest results could allow scientists to establish climate variability in Earth’s far distant past, as well as providing new routes to measure ocean acidification and salinity in past oceans.

Corn syrup model splits Yellowstone’s mantle plume in 2

A corn syrup mantle plume rises near the subducting plate, which induces fluid flow that distorts and deforms the plume as it rises toward the surface. -  Kelsey Druken
A corn syrup mantle plume rises near the subducting plate, which induces fluid flow that distorts and deforms the plume as it rises toward the surface. – Kelsey Druken

One of the greatest controversies in science is what’s underneath the Yellowstone supervolcano. The controversy surrounds a unique relationship between a mantle plume (like the one that powers Hawaiian volcanoes) and the subduction zone off the Washington-Oregon coast. Cutting-edge research using a common kitchen ingredient is explored in the latest issue of EARTH Magazine.

Recently published research explores this problem in 3-D, using a model created with corn syrup, fiberglass and a series of hydraulic pistons. What the scientists saw was a plume sliced in half by the subducting plate. Before this research, different scientific teams had only investigated the subducting tectonic plate or the mantle plume, but not both at the same time.

The resulting model of a bifurcated mantle plume potentially answers key questions about the Yellowstone supervolcano. Read about how these results impact volcano research in Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming and the South Pacific in the July issue of EARTH Magazine: http://bit.ly/153lVat. For complete access – including to see the corn syrup apparatus subscribe to Earth Magazine at: http://www.earthmagazine.org/digital.

Don’t miss the other great articles in the July issue of EARTH Magazine. Uncover ancient earthquake damage in a Roman Mausoleum, Arctic ozone depletion, and plankton growth caused by Icelandic volcanoes, all in this month’s issue of EARTH, now available on the digital newsstand at http://www.earthmagazine.org/digital.

Scientists solve a 14,000-year-old ocean mystery

At the end of the last Ice Age, as the world began to warm, a swath of the North Pacific Ocean came to life. During a brief pulse of biological productivity 14,000 years ago, this stretch of the sea teemed with phytoplankton, amoeba-like foraminifera and other tiny creatures, who thrived in large numbers until the productivity ended-as mysteriously as it began-just a few hundred years later.

Researchers have hypothesized that iron sparked this surge of ocean life, but a new study led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists and colleagues at the University of Bristol (UK), the University of Bergen (Norway), Williams College and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University suggests iron may not have played an important role after all, at least in some settings. The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, determines that a different mechanism-a transient “perfect storm” of nutrients and light-spurred life in the post-Ice Age Pacific. Its findings resolve conflicting ideas about the relationship between iron and biological productivity during this time period in the North Pacific-with potential implications for geo-engineering efforts to curb climate change by seeding the ocean with iron.

“A lot of people have put a lot of faith into iron-and, in fact, as a modern ocean chemist, I’ve built my career on the importance of iron-but it may not always have been as important as we think,” says WHOI Associate Scientist Phoebe Lam, a co-author of the study.

Because iron is known to cause blooms of biological activity in today’s North Pacific Ocean, researchers have assumed it played a key role in the past as well. They have hypothesized that as Ice Age glaciers began to melt and sea levels rose, they submerged the surrounding continental shelf, washing iron into the rising sea and setting off a burst of life.

Past studies using sediment cores-long cylinders drilled into the ocean floor that offer scientists a look back through time at what has accumulated there-have repeatedly found evidence of this burst, in the form of a layer of increased opal and calcium carbonate, the materials that made up phytoplankton and foraminifera shells. But no one had searched the fossil record specifically for signs that iron from the continental shelf played a part in the bloom.

Lam and an international team of colleagues revisited the sediment core data to directly test this hypothesis. They sampled GGC-37, a core taken from a site near Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, about every 5 centimeters, moving back through time to before the biological bloom began. Then they analyzed the chemical composition of their samples, measuring the relative abundance of the isotopes of the elements neodymium and strontium in the sample, which indicates which variant of iron was present. The isotope abundance ratios were a particularly important clue, because they could reveal where the iron came from-one variant pointed to iron from the ancient Loess Plateau of northern China, a frequent source of iron-rich dust in the northwest Pacific, while another suggested the younger, more volcanic continental shelf was the iron source.

What the researchers found surprised them.

“We saw the flux of iron was really high during glacial times, and that it dropped during deglaciation,” Lam says. “We didn’t see any evidence of a pulse of iron right before this productivity peak.”

The iron the researchers did find during glacial times appeared to be supplemented by a third source, possibly in the Bering Sea area, but it didn’t have a significant effect on the productivity peak. Instead, the data suggest that iron levels were declining when the peak began.

Based on the sediment record, the researchers propose a different cause for the peak: a chain of events that created ideal conditions for sea life to briefly flourish. The changing climate triggered deep mixing in the North Pacific ocean, which stirred nutrients that the tiny plankton depend on up into the sea’s surface layers, but in doing so also mixed the plankton into deep, dark waters, where light for photosynthesis was too scarce for them to thrive. Then a pulse of freshwater from melting glaciers-evidenced by a change in the amount of a certain oxygen isotope in the foraminifera shells found in the core-stopped the mixing, trapping the phytoplankton and other small creatures in a thin, bright, nutrient-rich top layer of ocean. With greater exposure to light and nutrients, and iron levels that were still relatively high, the creatures flourished.

“We think that ultimately this is what caused the productivity peak-that all these things happened all at once,” Lam says. “And it was a transient thing, because the iron continued to drop and eventually the nutrients ran out.”

The study’s findings disprove that iron caused this ancient bloom, but they also raise questions about a very modern idea. Some scientists have proposed seeding the world’s oceans with iron to trigger phytoplankton blooms that could trap some of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide and help stall climate change. This idea, sometimes referred to as the “Iron Hypothesis,” has met with considerable controversy, but scientific evidence of its potential effectiveness to sequester carbon and its impact on ocean life has been mixed.

“This study shows how there are multiple controls on ocean phytoplankton blooms, not just iron,” says Ken Buesseler, a WHOI marine chemist who led a workshop in 2007 to discuss modern iron fertilization. “Certainly before we think about adding iron to the ocean to sequester carbon as a geoengineering tool, we should encourage studies like this of natural systems where the conditions of adding iron, or not, on longer and larger time scales have already been done for us and we can study the consequences.”