Ice core measurements have revealed a highly asymmetric cycle in Antarctic temperature and atmospheric CO2 over the last 800 kyr. Both CO2 and temperature decrease over 100 kyr going into a glacial period and then rise steeply over less than 10 kyr at the end of a glacial period. There does not yet exist wide agreement about the causes of this cycle or about the origin of its shape. Here we explore the possibility that an ecologically driven oscillator plays a role in the dynamics. A conceptual model describing the interaction between calcifying plankton and ocean alkalinity shows interesting features: (i) It generates an oscillation in atmospheric CO2 with the characteristic asymmetric shape observed in the ice core record, (ii) the system can transform a sinusoidal Milankovitch forcing into a sawtooth-shaped output, and (iii) there are spikes of enhanced calcifier productivity at the glacial-interglacial transitions, consistent with several sedimentary records. This suggests that ecological processes might play an active role in the observed glacial-interglacial cycles.
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