Atlantic Ocean thermohaline circulation of the last 150,000 years: Relationship to climate and atmospheric CO2


  • D. W. Oppo,

  • R. G. Fairbanks


The high-resolution δ18O and δ13C records of benthic foraminifera from a 150,000-year long core from the Caribbean Sea indicate that there was generally high δ13C during glaciations and low δ13C during interglaciations. Due to its 1800-m sill depth, the properties of deep water in the Caribbean Sea are similar to those of middepth tropical Atlantic water. During interglaciations, the water filling the deep Caribbean Sea is an admixture of low δ13C Upper Circumpolar Water (UCPW) and high δ13C Upper North Atlantic Deep Water (UNADW). By contrast, only high δ13C UNADW enters during glaciations. Deep ocean circulation changes can influence atmospheric CO2 levels (Broecker and Takahashi, 1985; Boyle, 1988a; Keir, 1988; Broecker and Peng, 1989). By comparing δ13C records of benthic foraminifera from cores lying in Southern Ocean Water, the Caribbean Sea, and at several other Atlantic Ocean sites, the thermohaline state of the Atlantic Ocean (how close it was to a full glacial or full interglacial configuration) is characterized. A continuum of circulation patterns between the glacial and interglacial extremes appears to have existed in the past. Subtracting the deep Pacific (∼mean ocean water) δ13C record from the Caribbean δ13C record yields a record which describes large changes in the Atlantic Ocean thermohaline circulation. The δ13C difference varies as the vertical nutrient distribution changes. This new proxy record bears a striking resemblance to the 150,000-year-long atmospheric CO2 record (Barnola et al., 1987). This favorable comparison between the new proxy record and the atmospheric CO2 record is consistent with Boyle's (1988a) model that vertical nutrient redistribution has driven large atmospheric CO2 changes in the past. Changes in the relative contribution of NADW and Pacific outflow water to the Southern Ocean are also consistent with Broecker and Peng's (1989) recent model for atmospheric CO2 changes.