Unlocking the secrets to ending an Ice Age

The bi-polar seesaw is usually associated with the higher-frequency abrupt climate changes (e.g., Dansgaard-Oeschger and Heinrich events) that are embedded within the longer, orbital timescale variations. However, numerous studies have indicated that it also sets the stage for initiating the full deglaciation process. In this scenario, the increase in boreal summer insolation melts enough NH ice to trigger a strong AMOC reduction, which cools the North at the expense of warming the South. The changes in Antarctica are lagged somewhat due to the thermal inertia of the Southern Ocean, but eventually the result is degassing of CO2 from the Southern Ocean and global warming. In particular, CO2 levels started to rise from full glacial levels of about 180 parts per million (ppm), reaching 265 ppm 10,000 years ago (or ~2.1 W/m2 radiative forcing), and with another slow ~15 ppm rise during the Holocene.

Figure 1: Simplified schematic of the deglacial evolution according to Shakun et al (2012). kya = kiloyears ago; NH = Northern Hemisphere

The evolution of temperature as a function of latitude and the timing of CO2 rise are shown below (at two different time periods in part a, see the caption). There is considerable spatial and temporal structure in how the changes occur during deglaciation. There is also long-term warming trend superimposed on higher-frequency “abrupt climate changes” associated with AMOC-induced heat redistributions.

Figure 2: Temperature change before increase in CO2 concentration. a, Linear temperature trends in the proxy records from 21.5–19 kyr ago (red) and 19–17.5 kyr ago (blue) averaged in 10° latitude bins with1σ uncertainties. b, Proxy temperature stacks for 30° latitude bands with 1σ uncertainties. The stacks have been normalized by the glacial–interglacial (G–IG) range in each time series to facilitate comparison. From Shakun et al (2012)

What causes the CO2 rise?

The ultimate trigger of the CO2 increase is still a topic of interesting research. Some popular discussions like to invoke simple explanations, such as the fact that warmer water will expel CO2, but this is probably a minor effect (Sigman and Boyle, 2000). More than likely, the isotopic signal (the distribution of 13C-depleted carbon that invaded the atmosphere) indicates that carbon should have been “mined’ from the Southern ocean as a result of the displacement of southern winds, sea ice, and perturbations to the ocean’s biological pump (e.g., Anderson et al., 2009).

This view has been supported by another recent paper (Schmitt et al., 2012) that represents a key scientific advance in dissecting this problem. Until recently, analytical issues in the ice core measurements provided a limitation on assessing the deglacial isotopic evolution of 13C. Because carbon cycle processes such as photosynthesis fractionate the heavy isotope 13C from the lighter 12C, isotopic analysis can usually be used to “trace” sources and sinks of carbon. A rapid depletion in 13C between about 17,500 and 14,000 years ago, simultaneous with a time when the CO2 concentration rose substantially, is consistent with release of CO2 from an isolated deep-ocean source that accumulated carbon due to the sinking of organic material from the surface.

Figure 3: Ice core reconstructions of atmospheric δ13C and CO2 concentration covering the last 24 kyr, see Schmitt et al (2012)

Skeptics, CO2 lags, and all that…

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  1. D.M. Sigman, and E.A. Boyle, "", Nature, vol. 407, pp. 859-869, 2000. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/35038000
  2. R.F. Anderson, S. Ali, L.I. Bradtmiller, S.H.H. Nielsen, M.Q. Fleisher, B.E. Anderson, and L.H. Burckle, "Wind-Driven Upwelling in the Southern Ocean and the Deglacial Rise in Atmospheric CO2", Science, vol. 323, pp. 1443-1448, 2009. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1167441
  3. J. Schmitt, R. Schneider, J. Elsig, D. Leuenberger, A. Lourantou, J. Chappellaz, P. Kohler, F. Joos, T.F. Stocker, M. Leuenberger, and H. Fischer, "Carbon Isotope Constraints on the Deglacial CO2 Rise from Ice Cores", Science, vol. 336, pp. 711-714, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1217161