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Stable isotope constraints on Holocene carbon cycle changes from an Antarctic ice core


Reconstructions of atmospheric CO2 concentrations based on Antarctic ice cores1,2 reveal significant changes during the Holocene epoch, but the processes responsible for these changes in CO2 concentrations have not been unambiguously identified. Distinct characteristics in the carbon isotope signatures of the major carbon reservoirs (ocean, biosphere, sediments and atmosphere) constrain variations in the CO2 fluxes between those reservoirs. Here we present a highly resolved atmospheric δ13C record for the past 11,000 years from measurements on atmospheric CO2 trapped in an Antarctic ice core. From mass-balance inverse model calculations3,4 performed with a simplified carbon cycle model, we show that the decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 5 parts per million by volume (p.p.m.v.). The increase in δ13C of about 0.25‰ during the early Holocene is most probably the result of a combination of carbon uptake of about 290 gigatonnes of carbon by the land biosphere and carbon release from the ocean in response to carbonate compensation of the terrestrial uptake during the termination of the last ice age. The 20 p.p.m.v. increase of atmospheric CO2 and the small decrease in δ13C of about 0.05‰ during the later Holocene can mostly be explained by contributions from carbonate compensation of earlier land-biosphere uptake and coral reef formation, with only a minor contribution from a small decrease of the land-biosphere carbon inventory.

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Figure 1: δ 13 C and CO 2 1, 2 measured in air trapped in ice from Dome C, Antarctica.
Figure 2: δ13C ice-core records measured on the Antarctic ice cores from Dome C, Taylor Dome7 and Law Dome22.
Figure 3: Attribution of simulated CO 2 to different processes.


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This work is a contribution to the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA), a joint European Science Foundation/European Commission scientific programme, funded by the EU (EPICA-MIS) and by national contributions from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The main logistic support was provided by IPEV and PNRA (at Dome C) and AWI (at Dronning Maud Land). We thank A. Landais, D. Rodriguez, E. Capron and G. Dreyfus for the contribution of δ15N data as well as P. Nyfeler and K. Grossenbacher for their technical support, T. Tschumi for sharing his Bern3D results, and J. Chappellaz for comments. We acknowledge financial support by the Swiss NSF, the DFG priority programme INTERDYNAMIK and the German climate programme DEKLIM. This is EPICA publication no. 227.

Author Contributions J.E., J.S., D.L., R.S. and M.E. performed the measurements. F.J. performed modelling and interpretation. M.L., H.F. and T.F.S designed the research. All authors participated in discussions on method development, interpretation and presentation of results.

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Correspondence to Thomas F. Stocker.

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This file contains Supplementary Methods, a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Notes, Supplementary References, Supplementary Tables ST1-ST2 and Supplementary Figures S1-S7 with Legends. (PDF 467 kb)

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Elsig, J., Schmitt, J., Leuenberger, D. et al. Stable isotope constraints on Holocene carbon cycle changes from an Antarctic ice core. Nature 461, 507–510 (2009).

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