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Modelled atmospheric temperatures and global sea levels over the past million years


Marine records of sediment oxygen isotope compositions show that the Earth's climate has gone through a succession of glacial and interglacial periods during the past million years. But the interpretation of the oxygen isotope records is complicated because both isotope storage in ice sheets and deep-water temperature affect the recorded isotopic composition1,2,3,4,5. Separating these two effects would require long records of either sea level or deep-ocean temperature, which are currently not available. Here we use a coupled model of the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets6 and ocean temperatures, forced to match an oxygen isotope record for the past million years compiled from 57 globally distributed sediment cores, to quantify both contributions simultaneously. We find that the ice-sheet contribution to the variability in oxygen isotope composition varied from ten per cent in the beginning of glacial periods to sixty per cent at glacial maxima, suggesting that strong ocean cooling preceded slow ice-sheet build-up. The model yields mutually consistent time series of continental mean surface temperatures between 40 and 80° N, ice volume and global sea level. We find that during extreme glacial stages, air temperatures were 17 ± 1.8 °C lower than present, with a 120 ± 10 m sea level equivalent of continental ice present.

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Financial support was provided by the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO), in the framework of the SPINOZA award of J. Oerlemans. Constructive remarks were provided by M. Siddall and D. Dahl-Jensen.

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Correspondence to Richard Bintanja.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Discussion

This file shows and discusses temperature and sea level reconstructions based on two individual marine isotope records (DSDP 607 from the Atlantic Ocean and ODP 846 from the Pacific Ocean). It also contains a comparison between sea levels based on linear scaling of the marine isotope signal and modelled values. (DOC 194 kb)

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Figure 1: Schematic outline of the inverse procedure.
Figure 2: 1,070-kyr time series of reconstructed Northern Hemisphere surface air temperature.
Figure 3: Time series of past global sea level.
Figure 4: Fluctuations in the various isotope signals over the 1,070-kyr period.


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