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A carbon isotope record of CO2 levels during the late Quaternary


ANALYSES of gases trapped in continental ice sheets have shown that the concentration of CO2 in the Earth's early atmosphere increased from 180 to 280 p.p.m. during the most recent glacial-interglacial transition1. This change must have been driven by an increase in the concentration of CO2 dissolved in the mixed layer of the ocean2. Biochemical and physiological factors associated with photosynthetic carbon fixation in this layer should lead to a relationship between concentrations of dissolved CO2 and the carbon isotopic composition of phytoplanktonic organic material3, such that increased atmospheric CO2 should enhance the difference in 13C content between dissolved inorganic carbon and organic products of photosynthesis. Here we show that a signal related to atmospheric CO2 levels can be seen in the isotope record of a hemipelagic sediment core, which we can correlate with the CO2 record of the Vostok ice core. Calibration of the relationship between isotope fractionation and CO2 levels should permit the extrapolation of CO2 records to times earlier than those for which ice-core records are available.

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Jasper, J., Hayes, J. A carbon isotope record of CO2 levels during the late Quaternary. Nature 347, 462–464 (1990).

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