Decreased ventilation of the Southern Ocean in glacial time is implicated in most explanations of lower glacial atmospheric CO2. Today, the deep (>2000 m) ocean south of the Polar Front is rapidly ventilated from below, with the interaction of deep currents with topography driving high mixing rates well up into the water column. We show from a buoyancy budget that mixing rates are high in all the deep waters of the Southern Ocean. Between the surface and ∼2000 m depth, water is upwelled by a residual meridional overturning that is directly linked to buoyancy fluxes through the ocean surface. Combined with the rapid deep mixing, this upwelling serves to return deep water to the surface on a short time scale.
We propose two new mechanisms by which, in glacial time, the deep Southern Ocean may have been more isolated from the surface. Firstly, the deep ocean appears to have been more stratified because of denser bottom water resulting from intense sea ice formation near Antarctica. The greater stratification would have slowed the deep mixing. Secondly, subzero atmospheric temperatures may have meant that the present-day buoyancy flux from the atmosphere to the ocean surface was reduced or reversed. This in turn would have reduced or eliminated the upwelling (contrary to a common assumption, upwelling is not solely a function of the wind stress but is coupled to the air–sea buoyancy flux too). The observed very close link between Antarctic temperatures and atmospheric CO2 could then be explained as a natural consequence of the connection between the air–sea buoyancy flux and upwelling in the Southern Ocean, if slower ventilation of the Southern Ocean led to lower atmospheric CO2. Here we use a box model, similar to those of previous authors, to show that weaker mixing and reduced upwelling in the Southern Ocean can explain the low glacial atmospheric CO2 in such a formulation.