North American ice-sheet dynamics and the onset of 100,000-year glacial cycles


The onset of major glaciations in the Northern Hemisphere about 2.7 million years ago1 was most probably induced by climate cooling during the late Pliocene epoch2,3. These glaciations, during which the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets successively expanded and retreated, are superimposed on this long-term climate trend, and have been linked to variations in the Earth’s orbital parameters4. One intriguing problem associated with orbitally driven glacial cycles is the transition from 41,000-year to 100,000-year climatic cycles that occurred without an apparent change in insolation forcing5. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the transition, both including and excluding ice-sheet dynamics6,7,8,9,10. Difficulties in finding a conclusive answer to this palaeoclimatic problem are related to the lack of sufficiently long records of ice-sheet volume or sea level. Here we use a comprehensive ice-sheet model and a simple ocean-temperature model11 to extract three-million-year mutually consistent records of surface air temperature, ice volume and sea level from marine benthic oxygen isotopes12. Although these records and their relative phasings are subject to considerable uncertainty owing to limited availability of palaeoclimate constraints, the results suggest that the gradual emergence of the 100,000-year cycles can be attributed to the increased ability of the merged North American ice sheets to survive insolation maxima and reach continental-scale size. The oversized, wet-based ice sheet probably responded to the subsequent insolation maximum by rapid thinning through increased basal-sliding13,14, thereby initiating a glacial termination. Based on our assessment of the temporal changes in air temperature and ice volume during individual glacials, we demonstrate the importance of ice dynamics and ice–climate interactions in establishing the 100,000-year glacial cycles, with enhanced North American ice-sheet growth and the subsequent merging of the ice sheets being key elements.

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Figure 1: Three-million-year time series of marine oxygen isotope values, subarctic surface air temperature and ice volume.
Figure 2: Phase lags of input/reconstructed variables, as evaluated using Blackman–Tukey cross-spectral analysis with 30% lags.
Figure 3: Time series of ice volume and Northern Hemisphere subarctic surface air temperature between 1.5 and 0.5 Myr ago, across the MPT.


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Financial support to R.B. was provided by the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO), in the framework of the SPINOZA award of J. Oerlemans, and through the EU programme Quantify. This work was initiated during the start-up phase of the Utrecht Centre for Geosciences (UCG) programme. We thank W. Greuell, D. Lea, L. Lourens, M. Siddall and N. Weber for remarks on earlier versions of the paper.

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Correspondence to R. Bintanja.

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Supplementary information

This file contains Supplementary Methods with additional references and Supplementary Figures 1-6 with Legends. In this file, the methods and uncertainty estimate are discussed in more detail. Moreover, a comparison between our reconstructed data and independent paleotemperature records is shown. Finally, the mechanisms associated with the middle Pleistocene transition and the 100-kyr glacial cycles, including the inception and termination phases, are discussed in detail. (PDF 12004 kb)

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Bintanja, R., van de Wal, R. North American ice-sheet dynamics and the onset of 100,000-year glacial cycles. Nature 454, 869–872 (2008).

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