Letter | Published:

Precise interpolar phasing of abrupt climate change during the last ice age

Nature volume 520, pages 661665 (30 April 2015) | Download Citation


The last glacial period exhibited abrupt Dansgaard–Oeschger climatic oscillations, evidence of which is preserved in a variety of Northern Hemisphere palaeoclimate archives1. Ice cores show that Antarctica cooled during the warm phases of the Greenland Dansgaard–Oeschger cycle and vice versa2,3, suggesting an interhemispheric redistribution of heat through a mechanism called the bipolar seesaw4,5,6. Variations in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) strength are thought to have been important, but much uncertainty remains regarding the dynamics and trigger of these abrupt events7,8,9. Key information is contained in the relative phasing of hemispheric climate variations, yet the large, poorly constrained difference between gas age and ice age and the relatively low resolution of methane records from Antarctic ice cores have so far precluded methane-based synchronization at the required sub-centennial precision2,3,10. Here we use a recently drilled high-accumulation Antarctic ice core to show that, on average, abrupt Greenland warming leads the corresponding Antarctic cooling onset by 218 ± 92 years (2σ) for Dansgaard–Oeschger events, including the Bølling event; Greenland cooling leads the corresponding onset of Antarctic warming by 208 ± 96 years. Our results demonstrate a north-to-south directionality of the abrupt climatic signal, which is propagated to the Southern Hemisphere high latitudes by oceanic rather than atmospheric processes. The similar interpolar phasing of warming and cooling transitions suggests that the transfer time of the climatic signal is independent of the AMOC background state. Our findings confirm a central role for ocean circulation in the bipolar seesaw and provide clear criteria for assessing hypotheses and model simulations of Dansgaard–Oeschger dynamics.

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We thank the WAIS Divide Drilling Team (2006–2013) (E. Morton, P. Cassidy, M. Jayred, J. Robinson, S. Polishinski, J. Koehler, L. Albershardt, J. Goetz, B. Gross, R. Kulin, S. Haman, W. Neumeister, C. Zander, J. Kyne, L. Augustin, B. Folmer, S. B. Hansen, E. Alexander and J. Fowler) and the dozens of core handlers who processed the ice core in the field and at the National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL). This work is funded through the US National Science foundation grants 0944078, 0841308 (to M.A.), 1043528 (to R.B.A., D.E.V. and J.M.F.), 1142173 (to R.B.), 1204172, 1142041, 1043518 (to E.J.B.), 0839066 (to J.C.-D.), 0087345, 0944191 (to H.C. and E.D.W.), 0539232, 0537661 (to K.M.C.), 1142069, 1142115 (to N.W.D.), 0841135 (to IDDO), 0839093, 1142166 (to J.R.M.), 0440819, 1142164 (to K.C.M.), 1142178 (to P.B.P.), 0538657 (to J.P.S.), 1043500, 0944584 (to T.A.S.), 1043313 (to M.K.S), 0537930, 1043092 (to E.J.S.), 0230149, 0230396, 0440817, 0440819, 0944191, 0944348 (to K.C.T.), 0944266 (to M.S.T.), 0839137 (to K.C.W. and K.N.), 0537593 and 1043167 (to J.W.C.W.); the USGS Climate and Land Use Change Program (to G.D.C. and J.J.F.); the NOAA Climate and Global Change Fellowship Program, administered by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (to C.B.); the Villum Foundation (to M.W.); the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (to J.B.P., JISAO contribution no. 2343); and the Korea Polar Research Institute, grant PE15010 (to J.A.). The National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs also funded the WAIS Divide Science Coordination Office at the Desert Research Institute of Nevada and University of New Hampshire for the collection and distribution of the WAIS Divide ice core and related tasks; the Ice Drilling Program Office and Ice Drilling Design and Operations group for coring activities; the NICL for curation of the core; Raytheon Polar Services for logistics support in Antarctica; and the 109th New York Air National Guard for airlift in Antarctica.

Author information

Author notes


  1. College of Earth, Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA.

    • Christo Buizert
    • , Thomas K. Bauska
    • , Edward J. Brook
    • , Jon S. Edwards
    • , Michael L. Kalk
    • , James E. Lee
    • , Shaun A. Marcott
    • , Logan E. Mitchell
    • , Rachael H. Rhodes
    •  & Julia L. Rosen
  2. US Geological Survey National Ice Core Laboratory, Denver, Colorado 80225, USA.

    • Betty Adrian
    • , Brian B. Bencivengo
    • , Geoffrey M. Hargreaves
    •  & Richard M. Nunn
  3. School of Earth and Environmental Science, Seoul National University, Seoul 151-742, Korea.

    • Jinho Ahn
  4. Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, USA.

    • Mary Albert
    •  & Stephanie Gregory
  5. Department of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA.

    • Richard B. Alley
    • , John M. Fegyveresi
    • , Todd A. Sowers
    •  & Donald E. Voigt
  6. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA.

    • Daniel Baggenstos
    • , Anais J. Orsi
    •  & Jeffrey P. Severinghaus
  7. Department of Physics, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720, USA.

    • Ryan C. Bay
    •  & P. Buford Price
  8. Ice Drilling Design and Operations, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA.

    • Charles R. Bentley
    • , Chris J. Gibson
    • , Joshua J. Goetz
    • , Jay A. Johnson
    • , Tanner W. Kuhl
    • , Donald A. Lebar
    • , Nicolai B. Mortensen
    • , Paul J. Sendelbach
    • , Alexander J. Shturmakov
    • , Kristina R. Slawny
    •  & Anthony W. Wendricks
  9. Desert Research Institute, Nevada System of Higher Education, Reno, Nevada 89512, USA.

    • Nathan J. Chellman
    • , Olivia J. Maselli
    • , Joseph R. McConnell
    • , Kenneth C. McGwire
    • , Daniel R. Pasteris
    • , Michael Sigl
    •  & Kendrick C. Taylor
  10. US Geological Survey, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA.

    • Gary D. Clow
  11. Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, South Dakota State University, Brookings, South Dakota 57007, USA.

    • Jihong Cole-Dai
    •  & Dave G. Ferris
  12. Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195-1310, USA.

    • Howard Conway
    • , T. J. Fudge
    • , Bradley R. Markle
    • , Andrew J. Schauer
    • , Spruce W. Schoenemann
    • , Eric J. Steig
    • , Edwin D. Waddington
    •  & Mai Winstrup
  13. ADC Management Services, Lakewood, Colorado 80226, USA.

    • Eric Cravens
  14. Department of Geography, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94709, USA.

    • Kurt M. Cuffey
  15. Earth and Environmental Science Department, New Mexico Tech, Socorro, New Mexico 87801, USA.

    • Nelia W. Dunbar
    •  & Nels Iverson
  16. US Geological Survey, Denver, Colorado 80225, USA.

    • Joan J. Fitzpatrick
  17. Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0450, USA.

    • Vasileios Gkinis
    • , Tyler R. Jones
    • , Bruce H. Vaughn
    •  & James W. C. White
  18. Centre for ice and climate, University of Copenhagen, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark.

    • Vasileios Gkinis
    • , Joel B. Pedro
    •  & Mai Winstrup
  19. Antarctic Support Contract, Lockheed Martin US Antarctic Program, Centennial, Colorado 80112, USA.

    • Matthew J. Kippenhan
  20. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, New York 10964, USA.

    • Bess G. Koffman
  21. Climate Change Institute and School of Earth and Climate Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA.

    • Karl Kreutz
  22. University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin, Wisconsin 53706 USA.

    • Shaun A. Marcott
  23. Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6012, New Zealand.

    • Peter D. Neff
  24. Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720, USA.

    • Kunihiko Nishiizumi
    •  & Kees C. Welten
  25. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Institut Pierre Simon Laplace, 91191 Gif-Sur-Yvette, France.

    • Anais J. Orsi
  26. Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA.

    • Joel B. Pedro
  27. Department of Geosciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775, USA.

    • Erin C. Pettit
  28. Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana 59717, USA.

    • John C. Priscu
  29. Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire 03824, USA.

    • Joseph M. Souney
    •  & Mark S. Twickler
  30. School of Physical Sciences, Lake Superior State University, Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan 49783, USA.

    • Matthew K. Spencer
  31. Department of Earth Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, USA.

    • Gifford J. Wong
  32. PRIME Laboratory, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, USA.

    • Thomas E. Woodruff


  1. WAIS Divide Project Members



    Data analysis and Δage modelling were performed by C.B.; annual-layer counting (dating) of upper 2,850 m by M.S., T.J.F., M.W., K.C.T. and K.C.M.; CH4 synchronization (dating) of lower 555 m by C.B., K.M.C., J.P.S. and T.J.F.; age scale validation by N.W.D., N.I., K.C.W., K.N. and T.E.W.; discrete water isotope analysis by E.J.S., A.J.Sc. and S.W.S.; continuous water isotope analysis by J.W.C.W., T.R.J., B.H.V. and V.G.; discrete CH4 analysis by T.A.S., L.E.M., J.E.L., J.S.E., J.L.R. and E.J.B.; continuous CH4 analysis by R.H.R., E.J.B. and J.R.M.; CO2 analysis by S.A.M., M.L.K., T.K.B., J.A. and E.J.B.; δ15N of N2 analysis by D.B., C.B., A.J.O. and J.P.S.; continuous-flow chemical analysis by M.S., O.J.M., N.J.C., D.R.P. and J.R.M.; discrete chemical analysis by J.C.-D., D.G.F., B.G.K., K.K. and G.J.W.; ice core physical properties by R.B.A., J.M.F., D.E.V., M.K.S. and J.J.F.; borehole logging by R.C.B. and G.D.C.; biological studies by J.C.P. and P.B.P.; temperature reconstructions by K.M.C. and G.D.C.; tephrochronology by N.W.D. and N.I.; firn studies by M.A., T.A.S. and S.G.; 10Be analysis by K.C.W. and T.E.W.; field science oversight, D.E.V. and B.H.V.; site selection by H.C., E.D.W. and E.C.P.; science management and sample distribution by M.S.T. and J.M.S.; logistics support, planning and management by M.J.K.; drilling management by A.J.Sh., C.R.B., D.A.L., and A.W.W.; deep drill design by A.J.Sh., J.A.J., N.B.M. and C.J.G.; drilling field management by J.A.J., K.R.S. and N.B.M.; sample collection and drill operations by C.J.G., J.J.G., T.W.K. and P.J.S. The field sample handling leaders were A.J.O., B.G.K., P.D.N. and G.J.W.; sample curation, processing and distribution was performed by G.M.H., B.A., R.M.N., E.C. and B.B.B.; the overall WAIS Divide Project design and management, Chief Scientist and field leader was K.C.T. The manuscript was written by C.B., E.J.S. and J.B.P. with assistance from J.P.S., B.R.M., E.J.B. and K.C.T; all authors discussed the results and contributed to improving the final manuscript. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

    Competing interests

    The author declare no competing financial interests.

    Corresponding author

    Correspondence to Christo Buizert.

    Extended data

    Supplementary information

    Excel files

    1. 1.

      Supplementary Data 1

      This file contains the WAIS Divide d18O, CH4 and ssNa data.

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    1. 1.

      Supplementary Data 2

      This zip file contains the computer code (in Matlab) used in the analyses presented in our paper. It also contains a "readme" file that has some more information. All these files are needed to run the code.

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