The polar ocean and glacial cycles in atmospheric CO2 concentration

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Abstract

Global climate and the atmospheric partial pressure of carbon dioxide () are correlated over recent glacial cycles, with lower during ice ages, but the causes of the changes are unknown. The modern Southern Ocean releases deeply sequestered CO2 to the atmosphere. Growing evidence suggests that the Southern Ocean CO2 ‘leak’ was stemmed during ice ages, increasing ocean CO2 storage. Such a change would also have made the global ocean more alkaline, driving additional ocean CO2 uptake. This explanation for lower ice-age , if correct, has much to teach us about the controls on current ocean processes.

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Figure 1: Records of changing climate, atmospheric CO 2 , and Southern Ocean conditions over the last 800 thousand years.
Figure 5

Figure 2: Symbolic diagram of the ocean’s biological pump.
Figure 3: Summary cartoon of the global ocean today and in two possible ice-age states.
Figure 4: Palaeoclimate records over the most recent full glacial cycle and the last deglaciation, suggesting the roles of the Southern Ocean and North Atlantic in glacial/interglacial atmospheric CO 2 change.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. F. Adkins, R. F. Anderson, and J. Lynch-Stieglitz for discussions. Support was provided by the US NSF, the German DFG, the Humboldt and MacArthur Foundations, the Siebel Energy Grand Challenge at Princeton, and O. Happel.

Author information

D.M.S. and G.H.H. determined the content of the review. M.P.H. contributed throughout but especially to the treatment of geochemistry. Text and figure production was shared, led by D.M.S.

Correspondence to Daniel M. Sigman.

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Sigman, D., Hain, M. & Haug, G. The polar ocean and glacial cycles in atmospheric CO2 concentration. Nature 466, 47–55 (2010) doi:10.1038/nature09149

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