by Staff Writers
Boston MA (SPX) Jun 03, 2014
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 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
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.
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."
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Beyond the Ice Age
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