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Late Pliocene Greenland glaciation controlled by a decline in atmospheric CO2 levels


It is thought1,2 that the Northern Hemisphere experienced only ephemeral glaciations from the Late Eocene to the Early Pliocene epochs (about 38 to 4 million years ago), and that the onset of extensive glaciations did not occur until about 3 million years ago3,4. Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain this increase in Northern Hemisphere glaciation during the Late Pliocene5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Here we use a fully coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation model and an ice-sheet model to assess the impact of the proposed driving mechanisms for glaciation and the influence of orbital variations on the development of the Greenland ice sheet in particular. We find that Greenland glaciation is mainly controlled by a decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the Late Pliocene. By contrast, our model results suggest that climatic shifts associated with the tectonically driven closure of the Panama seaway5,6, with the termination of a permanent El Niño state7,8,9 or with tectonic uplift10 are not large enough to contribute significantly to the growth of the Greenland ice sheet; moreover, we find that none of these processes acted as a priming mechanism for glacial inception triggered by variations in the Earth’s orbit.

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Figure 1: Surface climate anomalies associated with the four hypotheses considered.
Figure 2: Ice-sheet configurations.


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This work was carried out in the framework of the British Antarctic Survey GEACEP (Greenhouse to ice-house: Evolution of the Antarctic Cryosphere and Palaeoenvironment) programme. D.J.L. is funded by BAS and RCUK fellowships. G.L.F. is funded by a NERC research fellowship. E.J.S. is funded by a NERC studentship.

Author Contributions D.J.L. carried out the GCM and ice-sheet model simulations, except for the permanent El Niño GCM simulation, which was provided by P. Valdes at the University of Bristol, UK. A.M.H. contributed to setting up the Pliocene control and permanent El Niño GCM simulations. D.J.L., G.L.F. and A.M.H. were involved in the study design. E.J.S. devised parts of the ice-sheet model driver and experimental set-up. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Daniel J. Lunt.

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Lunt, D., Foster, G., Haywood, A. et al. Late Pliocene Greenland glaciation controlled by a decline in atmospheric CO2 levels. Nature 454, 1102–1105 (2008).

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