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Forcing of the cold event of 8,200 years ago by catastrophic drainage of Laurentide lakes


The sensitivity of oceanic thermohaline circulation to freshwater perturbations is a critical issue for understanding abrupt climate change1. Abrupt climate fluctuations that occurred during both Holocene and Late Pleistocene times have been linked to changes in ocean circulation2,3,4,5,6, but their causes remain uncertain. One of the largest such events in the Holocene occurred between 8,400 and 8,000 calendar years ago2,7,8 (7,650–7,200 14C years ago), when the temperature dropped by 4–8 °C in central Greenland2 and 1.5–3 °C at marine4,7 and terrestrial7,8 sites around the northeastern North Atlantic Ocean. The pattern of cooling implies that heat transfer from the ocean to the atmosphere was reduced in the North Atlantic. Here we argue that this cooling event was forced by a massive outflow of fresh water from the Hudson Strait. This conclusion is based on our estimates of the marine 14C reservoir for Hudson Bay which, in combination with other regional data, indicate that the glacial lakes Agassiz and Ojibway9,10,11,12, (originally dammed by a remnant of the Laurentide ice sheet) drained catastrophically 8,470 calendar years ago; this would have released >1014 m3 of fresh water into the Labrador Sea. This finding supports the hypothesis2,7,8 that a sudden increase in freshwater flux from the waning Laurentide ice sheet reduced sea surface salinity and altered ocean circulation, thereby initiating the most abrupt and widespread cold event to have occurred in the past 10,000 years.

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Figure 1: Northeastern Canada and adjacent seas.
Figure 2: Climate proxy records of the ‘82-kyr’ cold event. Both 14C (top) and calendar (lower) timescales are given.

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We thank the Canadian Museum of Nature for providing archived live-collected shells, and G. Bond, D. Fisher, B. MacLean and J. Teller for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by the Terrain Sciences Division, Geological Survey of Canada, and the US NSF (A.E.J. and J.T.A.).

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Correspondence to D. C. Barber.

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Barber, D., Dyke, A., Hillaire-Marcel, C. et al. Forcing of the cold event of 8,200 years ago by catastrophic drainage of Laurentide lakes. Nature 400, 344–348 (1999).

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