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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Dansgaard,W. et al. Evidence for general instability of past climate from a 250-kyr ice-core record. Nature 364, 218– 220 (1993).
Bond,G. et al. Correlations between climate records from North Atlantic sediments and Greenland ice. Nature 365, 143– 147 (1993).
Charles,C. D., Lynch-Stieglitz,J., Ninnemann,U. S. & Fairbanks,R. G. Climate connections between the hemisphere revealed by deep sea sediment core/ice core correlations. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 142, 19–27 (1996).
Bard,E., Rostek,F. & Sonzogni,C. Interhemispheric synchrony of the last deglaciation inferred from alkenone palaeothermometry. Nature 385 , 707–710 (1997).
Broecker,W. S., Peteet,D. M. & Rind,D. Does the ocean–atmosphere system have more than one stable mode of operation. Nature 315, 21–26 (1985).
Broecker,W. S. Massive iceberg discharges as triggers for global climate change. Nature 372, 421–424 ( 1994).
Crowley,T. J. North Atlantic Deep Water cools the southern hemisphere. Paleoceanography 7, 489–497 ( 1992).
Manabe,S. & Stouffer,R. J. Coupled ocean-atmosphere model response to freshwater input: Comparison to Younger Dryas event. Paleoceanography 12, 321–336 (1997).
Manabe,S., Stouffer,R. J., Spelman,M. J. & Bryan,K. Transient response of a coupled ocean-atmosphere model to gradual changes of atmospheric CO2. Part I: Annual mean response. J. Clim. 4, 785–818 ( 1991).
Blunier,T. et al. Asynchrony of Antarctic and Greenland climate change during the last glacial period. Nature 394, 739– 743 (1998).
Vidal,L. et al. Link between the North and South Atlantic during the Heinrich events of the last glacial period. Clim. Dyn. (in the press).
Thompson,L. G. et al. A 25,000-year tropical climate history from Bolivian ice cores. Science 282, 1858– 1864 (1998).
Lowell,T. V. et al. Interhemispheric correlation of Late Pleistocene glacial events. Science 269, 1541– 1549 (1995).
Prahl,F. G. & Wakeham,S. G. Calibration of unsaturation patterns in long-chain ketone compositions for paleotemperature assessment. Nature 330, 367–369 ( 1987).
Müller,P. J., Kirst,G., Ruhland,G., von Storch,I. & Rosell-Melé,A. Calibration of the alkenone paleotemperature index UK′ 37 based on core-tops from the eastern South Atlantic and the global ocean (60°N-60°S). Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 62, 1757– 1772 (1998).
Sonzogni,C. et al. Temperature and salinity effects on alkenone ratios measured in surface sediments from the Indian Ocean. Quat. Res. 47, 344–355 (1997).
Pelejero,C. & Grimalt,J. O. The correlation between UK′ 37 index and sea surface temperatures in the warm boundary: The South China Sea. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 61, 4789–4797 (1997).
Prahl,F. G., de Lange,G. J., Lyle,M. & Sparrow,M. A. Post-depositional stability of long-chain alkenones under contrasting redox conditions. Nature 341, 434–437 ( 1989).
Broecker,W. Glacial climate in the tropics. Science 272, 1902–1904 (1996).
CLIMAP Project Members Seasonal Reconstruction of the Earth's Surface at the Last Glacial Maximum (Map & Chart Ser. MC-3, Geol. Soc. Am., Boulder, Colorado, 1981).
Guilderson,T. P., Fairbanks,R. G. & Rubenstone,J. L. Tropical temperature variations since 20,000 years ago: Modulating interhemispheric climate change. Science 263, 663–665 (1994).
Mix,A. C., Morey,A. E., Pisias,N. G. & Hostetler,S. W. Foraminiferal fauna estimates of paleotemperature: Circumventing the no-analog problem yields cool ice age tropics. Paleoceanography 14, 350–359 (1999).
Hastings,D. W., Russell,A. D. & Emerson,S. R. Foraminiferal magnesium in Globigerinoides sacculifer as a paleotemperature proxy. Paleoceanography 13, 161–169 (1998).
Schrag,D. P., Hampt,G. & Murray,D. W. Pore fluid constraints on the temperature and oxygen isotopic composition of the glacial ocean. Science 272, 1930–1932 (1996).
Fairbanks,R. G. A 17,000-year glacio-eustatic sea level record: influence of glacial melting rates on the Younger Dryas event and deep-ocean circulation. Nature 342, 637–642 ( 1989).
Betts,A. K. & Ridgway,W. Tropical boundary layer equilibrium in the last ice age. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 2529–2534 (1992).
Crowley,T. J. & Baum,S. K. Effect of vegetation on an ice-age climate model simulation. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 16463–16480 (1997).
Hüls,M. & Zahn,R. Millennial-scale SST variability in the western subtropical North Atlantic from planktonic foraminiferal census counts. Paleoceanography (submitted).
Boyle,E. A. & Keigwin,L. North Atlantic thermohaline circulation during the past 20,000 years linked to high-latitude surface temperature. Nature 330, 35–40 (1987).
Arz,H. W., Pätzold,J. & Wefer,G. The deglacial history of the western tropical Atlantic as inferred from high resolution stable isotope records off northeastern Brazil. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 167, 105– 117 (1999).
Zhao,M., Beveridge,N. A. S., Shackleton,N. J., Sarnthein,M. & Eglinton,G. Molecular stratigraphy of cores off northwest Africa: Sea surface temperature history over the last 80 ka. Paleoceanography 10, 661– 675 (1995).
Villanueva,J. & Grimalt,J. O. Gas chromatographic tuning of the UK′ 37 paleothermometer. Anal. Chem. 69, 3329–3332 (1997).
Hughen,K. A. et al. Deglacial changes in ocean circulation from an extended radiocarbon calibration. Nature 391, 65– 68 (1998).
Stuiver,M. & Reimer, P. J. Extended 14C data base and revised CALIB 3. 0 14C age calibration program. Radiocarbon 35, 215–230 (1993).
Johnsen,S. J., Dansgaard,W., Clausen,H. B. & Langway,C. C. Oxygen isotope profiles through the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Nature 235, 429–434 ( 1972).
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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
Global and Planetary Change (2020)
Two long and pronounced cold periods 3,000–5,000 and 6,600–8,400 years B.P. in East Asia and the southward migration of the westerly jet
Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (2020)
Southward Displacement of the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre Circulation System During North Atlantic Cold Spells
Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology (2019)
Thermal response of the western tropical Atlantic to slowdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation
Earth and Planetary Science Letters (2019)
Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology (2019)