Dual modes of the carbon cycle since the Last Glacial Maximum


The most conspicuous feature of the record of past climate contained in polar ice is the rapid warming which occurs after long intervals of gradual cooling. During the last four transitions from glacial to interglacial conditions, over which such abrupt warmings occur, ice records indicate that the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere increased by roughly 80 to 100 parts per million by volume (14). But the causes of the atmospheric CO2 concentration increases are unclear. Here we present the stable-carbon-isotope composition (δ13CO2) of CO2 extracted from air trapped in ice at Taylor Dome, Antarctica, from the Last Glacial Maximum to the onset of Holocene times. The global carbon cycle is shown to have operated in two distinct primary modes on the timescale of thousands of years, one when climate was changing relatively slowly and another when warming was rapid, each with a characteristic average stable-carbon-isotope composition of the net CO2 exchanged by the atmosphere with the land and oceans. δ13CO2 increased between 16.5 and 9 thousand years ago by slightly more than would be estimated to be caused by the physical effects of a 5 °C rise in global average sea surface temperature driving a CO2 efflux from the ocean, but our data do not allow specific causes to be constrained.

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Figure 1: δ13CO2 and CO2-concentration trends.
Figure 2: Mixing diagram for Taylor Dome samples: 1/[CO2] is plotted against δ13CO2.


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We thank G. Hargreaves and J. Fitzpatrick for help obtaining samples, and E. Steig and E. Brook for sharing their depth-age scales. This work was supported by the NSF and the Director's office at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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Correspondence to H. Jesse Smith.

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Smith, H., Fischer, H., Wahlen, M. et al. Dual modes of the carbon cycle since the Last Glacial Maximum. Nature 400, 248–250 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1038/22291

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