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Antarctic glaciation caused ocean circulation changes at the Eocene–Oligocene transition

An Erratum to this article was published on 28 January 2015


Two main hypotheses compete to explain global cooling and the abrupt growth of the Antarctic ice sheet across the Eocene–Oligocene transition about 34 million years ago: thermal isolation of Antarctica due to southern ocean gateway opening1,2,3,4, and declining atmospheric CO2 (refs 5, 6). Increases in ocean thermal stratification and circulation in proxies across the Eocene–Oligocene transition have been interpreted as a unique signature of gateway opening2,4, but at present both mechanisms remain possible. Here, using a coupled ocean–atmosphere model, we show that the rise of Antarctic glaciation, rather than altered palaeogeography, is best able to explain the observed oceanographic changes. We find that growth of the Antarctic ice sheet caused enhanced northward transport of Antarctic intermediate water and invigorated the formation of Antarctic bottom water, fundamentally reorganizing ocean circulation. Conversely, gateway openings had much less impact on ocean thermal stratification and circulation. Our results support available evidence that CO2 drawdown—not gateway opening—caused Antarctic ice sheet growth, and further show that these feedbacks in turn altered ocean circulation. The precise timing and rate of glaciation, and thus its impacts on ocean circulation, reflect the balance between potentially positive feedbacks (increases in sea ice extent and enhanced primary productivity) and negative feedbacks (stronger southward heat transport and localized high-latitude warming). The Antarctic ice sheet had a complex, dynamic role in ocean circulation and heat fluxes during its initiation, and these processes are likely to operate in the future.

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Figure 1: Atlantic Ocean δ18O records compiled for the EOT.
Figure 2: Ocean temperature and δ18O anomalies.
Figure 3: Diagnostics for the mechanism for deep ocean cooling due to glaciation.
Figure 4: Zonally averaged poleward ocean heat transport.


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A.G. was funded by a Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) fellowship through the Computational Sciences and Engineering Program at Purdue University. M.H. and N.H. were supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) P2C2 grants OCE 0902882 and EAR 1049921. Computing was performed on Rosen Center for Advanced Computing resources on the Hansen and Coates cluster at Purdue University. Proxy records were compiled from refs 2, 4, and specific records and references are described in extended data. The CESM model is supported and developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is supported by the NSF.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



A.G. conducted the EOT simulations, recompiled the proxy record data and wrote the manuscript. N.H. and M.H. helped compile the proxy record data and helped with writing the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to A. Goldner or M. Huber.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Ocean temperature and δ18O anomalies.

ac, Zonally averaged temperature anomalies (°C) averaged over all longitudes: Glaciated minus unglaciated cases (CO2 constant at 560 p.p.m.) (a), 1,120 minus 560 p.p.m. CO2 cases (both unglaciated) (b), and unglaciated case with 1,120 p.p.m. CO2 minus glaciated case with 560 p.p.m. CO2 (c). df, δ18O comparisons (per mil) zonally averaged over the Atlantic basin; otherwise as in ac.

Extended Data Figure 2 Ocean temperature and δ18O anomalies in Atlantic Ocean basin due to Southern Ocean gateway opening.

a, Temperature anomaly (°C) for both gateways opened minus both gateways closed. b, Temperature anomaly for DP and TG closed minus DP open and TG closed. c, Temperature anomaly for DP and TG open minus TG closed DP open. df, As in ac, except for δ18O.

Extended Data Figure 3 Absolute sea-ice and anomalous sea surface temperature.

a, b, Sea ice fraction for glaciated (a) and unglaciated (b) cases. c, Glaciated minus unglaciated sea surface temperature anomaly. All simulations with 1,120 p.p.m. CO2.

Extended Data Figure 4 Absolute salinity fields.

Salinity (colour contour) and salinity flux (vectors) for glaciated late Eocene (a) and unglaciated cases (b) at 1,120 p.p.m. CO2.

Extended Data Figure 5 Absolute sea level pressure and surface wind.

Sea level pressure (colour contour) and surface wind (vectors) for glaciated (a) and unglaciated (b) cases at 1,120 p.p.m. CO2.

Extended Data Figure 6 Absolute Ekman pumping and transport.

Ekman pumping contour and Ekman transport overlaid as vectors for glaciated (a) and unglaciated (b) cases at 1,120 p.p.m. CO2. See the calculations for Ekman pumping and transport in Methods.

Extended Data Figure 7 Absolute ocean currents.

Zonally averaged ocean currents (meridional and vertical) across the Atlantic Ocean. The vertical ocean velocities are scaled by a constant coefficient (500) for plotting purposes. Glaciated (a) and unglaciated (b) cases at 1,120 p.p.m. CO2.

Extended Data Figure 8 Meridional overturning circulation.

Zonally averaged meridional overturning circulation anomaly for glaciated (a) unglaciated, (b) and glaciated minus unglaciated (c) case anomaly at 1,120 p.p.m. CO2.

Extended Data Figure 9 Depth–latitude plot for the non-interpolated and interpolated δ18O proxy record anomalies.

a, Raw δ18O anomalies. b, Interpolated δ18O anomalies (see Extended Data Table 1).

Extended Data Table 1 Site locality name, palaeolatitude, palaeolongitude, palaeodepth and δ18O

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Goldner, A., Herold, N. & Huber, M. Antarctic glaciation caused ocean circulation changes at the Eocene–Oligocene transition. Nature 511, 574–577 (2014).

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