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Eocene bipolar glaciation associated with global carbon cycle changes

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 03 November 2005


The transition from the extreme global warmth of the early Eocene ‘greenhouse’ climate 55 million years ago to the present glaciated state is one of the most prominent changes in Earth's climatic evolution. It is widely accepted that large ice sheets first appeared on Antarctica 34 million years ago, coincident with decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and a deepening of the calcite compensation depth in the world's oceans, and that glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere began much later, between 10 and 6 million years ago. Here we present records of sediment and foraminiferal geochemistry covering the greenhouse–icehouse climate transition. We report evidence for synchronous deepening and subsequent oscillations in the calcite compensation depth in the tropical Pacific and South Atlantic oceans from 42 million years ago, with a permanent deepening 34 million years ago. The most prominent variations in the calcite compensation depth coincide with changes in seawater oxygen isotope ratios of up to 1.5 per mil, suggesting a lowering of global sea level through significant storage of ice in both hemispheres by at least 100 to 125 metres. Variations in benthic carbon isotope ratios of up to 1.4 per mil occurred at the same time, indicating large changes in carbon cycling. We suggest that the greenhouse–icehouse transition was closely coupled to the evolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and that negative carbon cycle feedbacks may have prevented the permanent establishment of large ice sheets earlier than 34 million years ago.

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Figure 1: Records of calcite compensation depth (CCD) and carbonate content for the past 50 Myr.
Figure 2: Stable isotope records across the greenhouse–icehouse transition.
Figure 3: High-resolution records across the middle Eocene glaciation.


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We thank L. Kump for a review of this manuscript, M. Lyle for his efforts and comments, R. Eagle, C. de la Rocha, A. Piotrowski, M. Bickle, S. Crowhurst, R. Alley, T. van Andel and N. Shackleton for discussions of this work, M. Hall, J. Rolfe, L. Booth, M. Greaves, S. Farquhar and C. Sindrey for their technical help, and the Leg 199 Scientific Party for their efforts. This research used samples and data provided by the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP). This work was supported by the British Council through a Marshall Sherfield Postdoctoral Fellowship (A.T.), by NERC and the Comer Foundation (A.T. and H.E.), and by the US Science Support Program (A.T.). J.B. was supported by the Swedish Research Council.

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Correspondence to Aradhna Tripati.

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Supplementary Figure S1

Locality information for samples used in this study. (PDF 470 kb)

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Tripati, A., Backman, J., Elderfield, H. et al. Eocene bipolar glaciation associated with global carbon cycle changes. Nature 436, 341–346 (2005).

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