Early and Middle Miocene stable isotopes: Implications for Deepwater circulation and climate


  • James D. Wright,

  • Kenneth G. Miller,

  • Richard G. Fairbanks


The middle Miocene δ18O increase represents a fundamental change in the ocean-atmosphere system which, like late Pleistocene climates, may be related to deepwater circulation patterns. There has been some debate concerning the early to early middle Miocene deepwater circulation patterns. Specifically, recent discussions have focused on the relative roles of Northern Component Water (NCW) production and warm, saline deep water originating in the eastern Tethys. Our time series and time slice reconstructions indicate that NCW and Tethyan outflow water, two relatively warm deepwater masses, were produced from ∼20 to 16 Ma. NCW was produced again from 12.5 to 10.5 Ma. Another feature of the early and middle Miocene oceans was the presence of a high δ13C intermediate water mass in the southern hemisphere, which apparently originated in the Southern Ocean. Miocene climates appear to be related directly to deepwater circulation changes. Deep-waters warmed in the early Miocene by ∼3°C (∼20 to 16 Ma) and cooled by a similar amount during the middle Miocene δ18O increase (14.8 to 12.6 Ma), corresponding to the increase (∼20 Ma) and subsequent decrease (∼16 Ma) in the production of NCW and Tethyan outflow water. Large (>0.6 ‰), relatively rapid (∼0.5 m.y.) δ18O increases in both benthic and planktonic foraminifera (i.e., the Mi zones of Miller et al. (1991a) and Wright and Miller (1992a)) were superimposed in the long-term deepwater temperature changes; they are interpreted as reflecting continental ice growth events. Seven of these m.y. glacial/interglacial cycles have been recognized in the early to middle Miocene. Two of these glacial/interglacial cycles (Mi3 and Mi4) combined with a 2° to 3°C decrease in deepwater temperatures to produce the middle Miocene δ18O shift.