Warming of the tropical Atlantic Ocean and slowdown of thermohaline circulation during the last deglaciation

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Evidence for abrupt climate changes on millennial and shorter timescales is widespread in marine and terrestrial climate records1,2,3,4. Rapid reorganization of ocean circulation is considered to exert some control over these changes5, as are shifts in the concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases6. The response of the climate system to these two influences is fundamentally different: slowing of thermohaline overturn in the North Atlantic Ocean is expected to decrease northward heat transport by the ocean and to induce warming of the tropical Atlantic7,8, whereas atmospheric greenhouse forcing should cause roughly synchronous global temperature changes9. So these two mechanisms of climate change should be distinguishable by the timing of surface-water temperature variations relative to changes in deep-water circulation. Here we present a high-temporal-resolution record of sea surface temperatures from the western tropical North Atlantic Ocean which spans the past 29,000 years, derived from measurements of temperature-sensitive alkenone unsaturation in sedimentary organic matter. We find significant warming is documented for Heinrich event H1 (16,900–15,400 calendar years bp) and the Younger Dryas event (12,900–11,600 cal. yr bp), which were periods of intense cooling in the northern North Atlantic. Temperature changes in the tropical and high-latitude North Atlantic are out of phase, suggesting that the thermohaline circulation was the important trigger for these rapid climate changes.

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Figure 1: Temperature evolution of the western tropical Atlantic Ocean and of the Arctic and Antarctic during the past 30,000 yr.


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We thank A. Rosell-Melé, R. Schneider and A. Paul for comments on the manuscript, M. Hüls for discussions, and P. Grootes and staff of the Leibnitz-Labor in Kiel for providing AMS 14C datings. This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

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Correspondence to Carsten Rühlemann.

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Rühlemann, C., Mulitza, S., Müller, P. et al. Warming of the tropical Atlantic Ocean and slowdown of thermohaline circulation during the last deglaciation. Nature 402, 511–514 (1999) doi:10.1038/990069

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