The role of deep ocean circulation in setting glacial climates


  • Jess F. Adkins

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    1. Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences Caltech, Pasadena, California, USA
    • Corresponding author: J. F. Adkins, Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences, MS 131-24, Caltech, Pasadena, CA 91125, USA. (

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The glacial cycles of the Pleistocene involve changes in the circulation of the deep ocean in important ways. This review seeks to establish what were the robust patterns of deep-sea water mass changes and how they might have influenced important parts of the last glacial cycle. After a brief review of how tracers in the modern ocean can be used to understand the distribution of water masses, I examine the data for biogeochemical, circulation rate, and conservative tracers during glacial climates. Some of the robust results from the literature of the last 30 years include: a shoaled version of northern source deep water in the Atlantic, expanded southern source water in the abyss and deep ocean, salt (rather than heat) stratification of the last glacial maximum (LGM) deep-sea, and several lines of evidence for slower overturning circulation in the southern deep cell. We combine these observations into a new idea for how the ocean-atmosphere system moves from interglacial to glacial periods across a single cycle. By virtue of its influence on the melting of land-based ice around Antarctica, cooling North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) leads to a cold and salty version of Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW). This previously underappreciated feedback can lead to a more stratified deep ocean that operates as a more effective carbon trap than the modern, helping to lower atmospheric CO2 and providing a mechanism for the deep ocean to synchronize the hemispheres in a positive feedback that drives the system to further cooling.