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Thresholds for Cenozoic bipolar glaciation


The long-standing view of Earth’s Cenozoic glacial history calls for the first continental-scale glaciation of Antarctica in the earliest Oligocene epoch (33.6 million years ago1), followed by the onset of northern-hemispheric glacial cycles in the late Pliocene epoch, about 31 million years later2. The pivotal early Oligocene event is characterized by a rapid shift of 1.5 parts per thousand in deep-sea benthic oxygen-isotope values3 (Oi-1) within a few hundred thousand years4, reflecting a combination of terrestrial ice growth and deep-sea cooling. The apparent absence of contemporaneous cooling in deep-sea Mg/Ca records4,5,6, however, has been argued to reflect the growth of more ice than can be accommodated on Antarctica; this, combined with new evidence of continental cooling7 and ice-rafted debris8,9 in the Northern Hemisphere during this period, raises the possibility that Oi-1 represents a precursory bipolar glaciation. Here we test this hypothesis using an isotope-capable global climate/ice-sheet model that accommodates both the long-term decline of Cenozoic atmospheric CO2 levels10,11 and the effects of orbital forcing12. We show that the CO2 threshold below which glaciation occurs in the Northern Hemisphere (280 p.p.m.v.) is much lower than that for Antarctica (750 p.p.m.v.). Therefore, the growth of ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere immediately following Antarctic glaciation would have required rapid CO2 drawdown within the Oi-1 timeframe, to levels lower than those estimated by geochemical proxies10,11 and carbon-cycle models13,14. Instead of bipolar glaciation, we find that Oi-1 is best explained by Antarctic glaciation alone, combined with deep-sea cooling of up to 4 °C and Antarctic ice that is less isotopically depleted (-30 to -35‰) than previously suggested15,16. Proxy CO2 estimates remain above our model’s northern-hemispheric glaciation threshold of 280 p.p.m.v. until 25 Myr ago, but have been near or below that level ever since10,11. This implies that episodic northern-hemispheric ice sheets have been possible some 20 million years earlier than currently assumed (although still much later than Oi-1) and could explain some of the variability in Miocene sea-level records17,18.

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Figure 1: Changes in the isotopic composition of the ocean across the Eocene/Oligocene transition.
Figure 2: Simulated isotopic composition of snowfall on a glaciating Antarctic continent.
Figure 3: Simulations of Northern Hemisphere ice sheets for progressively lower values of CO2.
Figure 4: Model-generated CO2 thresholds for Antarctic and Northern Hemisphere glaciation superposed on a Cenozoic record of atmospheric CO2.


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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Robert M. DeConto.

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DeConto, R., Pollard, D., Wilson, P. et al. Thresholds for Cenozoic bipolar glaciation. Nature 455, 652–656 (2008).

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