Weaker Gulf Stream in the Florida Straits during the Last Glacial Maximum

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As it passes through the Florida Straits, the Gulf Stream consists of two main components: the western boundary flow of the wind-driven subtropical gyre and the northward-flowing surface and intermediate waters which are part of the ‘global conveyor belt’, compensating for the deep water that is exported from the North Atlantic Ocean1. The mean flow through the Straits is largely in geostrophic balance and is thus reflected in the contrast in seawater density across the Straits2. Here we use oxygen-isotope ratios of benthic foraminifera which lived along the ocean margins on the boundaries of the Florida Current during the Last Glacial Maximum to determine the density structure in the water and thereby reconstruct transport through the Straits using the geostrophic method—a technique which has been used successfully for estimating present-day flow3. Our data suggest that during the Last Glacial Maximum, the density contrast across the Florida Straits was reduced, with the geostrophic flow, referenced to the bottom of the channel, at only about two-thirds of the modern value. If the wind-driven western boundary flow was not lower during the Last Glacial Maximum than today, these results indicate a significantly weaker conveyor-belt component of the Gulf Stream compared to present-day values. Whereas previous studies based on tracers suggested that deep waters of North Atlantic origin were not widespread during glacial times, indicating either a relatively weak or a shallow overturning cell, our results provide evidence that the overturning cell was indeed weaker during glacial times.

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Figure 1: Location of sediment cores used in this study.
Figure 2: Observed and inferred hydrographic sections across the Florida Straits.
Figure 3: Isotopic measurements from sediment cores in this study.
Figure 4: Modern and LGM oxygen isotope and transport profiles.


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This work was supported by grants from the US National Science Foundation and a grant/cooperative agreement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NOAA or any of its subagencies. Support for the curating facilities of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Deep-Sea Sample Repository is provided by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. We are grateful to J. Mayer, A. LeGrande, D. Ostermann and M. Yeager for technical assistance.

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Correspondence to Jean Lynch-Stieglitz.

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Lynch-Stieglitz, J., Curry, W. & Slowey, N. Weaker Gulf Stream in the Florida Straits during the Last Glacial Maximum. Nature 402, 644–648 (1999) doi:10.1038/45204

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