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The Asian monsoon over the past 640,000 years and ice age terminations

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 23 November 2016


Oxygen isotope records from Chinese caves characterize changes in both the Asian monsoon and global climate. Here, using our new speleothem data, we extend the Chinese record to cover the full uranium/thorium dating range, that is, the past 640,000 years. The record’s length and temporal precision allow us to test the idea that insolation changes caused by the Earth’s precession drove the terminations of each of the last seven ice ages as well as the millennia-long intervals of reduced monsoon rainfall associated with each of the terminations. On the basis of our record’s timing, the terminations are separated by four or five precession cycles, supporting the idea that the ‘100,000-year’ ice age cycle is an average of discrete numbers of precession cycles. Furthermore, the suborbital component of monsoon rainfall variability exhibits power in both the precession and obliquity bands, and is nearly in anti-phase with summer boreal insolation. These observations indicate that insolation, in part, sets the pace of the occurrence of millennial-scale events, including those associated with terminations and ‘unfinished terminations’.

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Figure 1: Asian monsoon variations in the context of the Earth’s orbital parameters.
Figure 2: Comparison of climate events surrounding terminations and other two millennial-scale events.
Figure 3: Comparison of suborbital AM and Antarctic temperature variations.
Figure 4: Cross-spectral comparison.
Figure 5: Comparison of climate records across the MBE.
Figure 6: Comparison among Holocene records.


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This work was supported by China grants NBRP 2013CB955902, NSFC 41230524, 4157020432 and 41561144003, US NSF grants 0502535, 1103404, 0823554, 1003690, 1137693 and 1317693 and Singapore grant NRF-NRFF2011-08. We thank M. Siddall for help with analysis of the millennial-scale variability of the Antarctic temperature record and A. P. Roberts for converting the ice core chronology.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



H.C. designed the research and experiments; H.C., R.L.E. and A.S. wrote the manuscript, which was edited by all of the co-authors; L.Y., S.C. and A.S. did the spectral analysis; X.K., Y.W. and S.C. provided the cave samples; H.C. did the 230Th dating work; and C.S., X.K., M.K., Y.N. and H.Z. contributed to oxygen isotope measurements. All authors discussed the results and provided input to the manuscript and technical aspects of the laboratory analyses.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Hai Cheng or R. Lawrence Edwards.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Reviewer Information

Nature thanks C. Buizert, A. N. Meckler and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Schematic map of the vast Asian summer monsoon system.

Arrows depict wind directions, yellow labels show wind names. The Mascarene High is a high pressure system near the Mascarene Islands. Stars indicate Sanbao (31° 40′ N, 110° 26′ E), Hulu (32° 30′ N, 119° 10′ E) and Dongge (25° 17′ N, 108° 5′ E) caves. The AM composite record is constructed from speleothem δ18O records from these three caves. The map was constructed using NASA’s World Wind program (

Extended Data Figure 2 New speleothem records from China.

Four new stalagmite δ18O records used in this study are from Sanbao Cave, Hubei, China (labelled by sample numbers SB-12, SB-14, SB-32 and SB-58), and one is from Dongge Cave, Guizhou, China (labelled by sample number D8) (Fig. 1). Error bars indicate 230Th ages and errors (2σ). The 230Th dating method is described in ref. 5 and the dating results are listed in Supplementary Table 1. A high degree of similarity among the coeval portions of different δ18O records (the replication test2,58) demonstrates that kinetic factors and water/rock interactions do not have a substantial effect on the speleothem δ18O values.

Extended Data Figure 3 Stalagmite age models.

ae, Age models are shown for five stalagmites: SB-12 (a), SB-14 (b), SB-32 (c), SB-58 (d) from Sanbao Cave, and D8 (e) from Dongge Cave. The chronology of the upper part of SB-14 is established by linear interpolation between successive 230Th dates, whereas chronologies for other samples are based on polynomial fitting of 230Th dates. The vertical error bars depict errors (2σ) of 230Th dates.

Extended Data Figure 4 AM records over the past 640 kyr bp.

a, Previously published δ18O records over the past 384 kyr bp (black) from Hulu, Dongge and Sanbao caves2,3,4,22,54,55, and new SB-12 (blue) and SB-32 (olive) δ18O records. b, New SB-14 δ18O record. c, New SB-58 (purple) and D-8 (pink) δ18O records. d, Composite AM δ18O record over the past 640 kyr bp. The record is constructed from previous data (<384 kyr bp) and new data from four stalagmites from Sanbao Cave (≥384 kyr bp) (see details in Methods and Supplementary Table 1). e, Detrended AM record (Δδ18O) is obtained by using the z-standard method to remove the insolation component (21 July insolation at 65° N) (see Methods). f, Detrended AM result from ref. 8, which is essentially identical to our results. Minor differences exist because the AM δ18O records used in ref. 8 are slightly different.

Extended Data Figure 5 The AM Δδ18O record over the past 640 kyr bp obtained by the z-standard method and cross-spectral comparison with insolation.

a, Comparison among different AM Δδ18O records detrended by subtracting 21 June (green), 6 July (brown), 21 July (blue) and 6 August (orange) insolation respectively, using the z-standard method (see Methods). b, Cross-spectral comparisons between the insolation for detrending (pink) and Δδ18O records (blue) detrended by 21 June (i), 6 July (ii), 21 July (iii) and 6 August (iv) insolation respectively, using the z-standard method. Numbers in parentheses show the phase differences in degrees between insolation and Δδ18O record. In all cases, the most significant power in the Δδ18O record is in the precession band (~23 kyr). The ~41-kyr power is also present, but is relatively weak. The ~100-kyr power is insignificant.

Extended Data Figure 6 The AM Δδ18O record over the past 640 kyr bp obtained by the principal component analysis method and cross-spectral analysis with insolation.

a, b, As Extended Data Fig. 5, except the principal component analysis method was used, instead of the z-standard method.

Extended Data Figure 7 Comparison of millennial-scale climate events over the past 140 kyr.

a, North Atlantic ODP980 (dark blue)7 and LR04 (light blue)57 benthic δ18O records. b, ODP980 IRD records7. We correlate the IRD event around T-II to the WMI with similar duration (depicted by grey bar), which is consistent with the obvious offset of its δ18O shift related to that in LR04 record (dashed bar). YD and H1 to H6 indicate the Younger Dryas event, and Heinrich Stadial events 1 to 6, respectively. c, Greenland ice core (NGRIP) δ18O record49. d, Antarctic ice core (EDC) dust record59. e, Detrended Antarctic δD record18 (ΔδD), using a method modified from ref. 35. f, AM millennial variability (Δδ18O, detrended from the composite AM δ18O record by subtracting 21 July insolation at 65° N). g, Composite AM δ18O record. h, EDC CH4 record19. Vertical grey bars indicate major weak AM intervals (WMIs) and corresponding events (increase of temperature and decrease of dust flux in Antarctica, cold events in Greenland and IRD events in the North Atlantic Ocean). Dashed lines depict correlations between abrupt AM intensification and CH4 jump (brown) and between weak monsoon and IRD events (black). All ice core records are on their EDC3 chronology46. Notably, the AM Δδ18O and Antarctic ΔδD records show striking similarity, demonstrating a common millennial-scale variability (Fig. 3).

Extended Data Figure 8 Comparison and cross-spectral analyses between insolation, AM Δδ18O and Antarctic ΔδD records.

a, AM Δδ18O record (blue). b, Detrended Antarctic δD record18 (ΔδD, olive), using a method modified from ref. 35. 21 June insolation at 65° N (ref. 45; pink) is plotted for comparison in a and b. c, Comparison between Antarctic ΔδD (olive) and AM Δδ18O (blue) records. d, Cross-spectral analyses of the Antarctic ΔδD record (olive) with 21 July insolation at 65° N (pink) (left), and with the AM Δδ18O record (blue) (right), respectively. Numbers in parentheses show the phase differences in degrees. In all records, the precession cycle of ~23 kyr is significant. The phase of the Antarctic ΔδD record at precession band is close to 21 June insolation, and nearly anti-phased with the AM Δδ18O record. The remarkable correlation between weak AM (positive Δδ18O anomaly) and warm Antarctica (positive ΔδD anomaly) is evident (c).

Extended Data Figure 9 Comparison of the AM variability with sea level (global ice volume) and atmospheric CO2 changes.

Upper panel, interval from 350 to 0 kyr bp; lower panel, interval from 650 to 300 kyr bp. In both panels: a, AM Δδ18O record. b, AM δ18O record (green) and 21 July insolation at 65° N (pink)45. c, Composite sea level record17. d, Composite atmospheric CO2 record20. Grey bars show the timing of WMIs and associated terminations. Two yellow bars indicate the two millennial-scale positive anomalies (or WMIs), marking the ‘unfinished terminations’30—the MIS 4/3 and 5.2/5.1 transitions (Fig. 2). For the T-IIIa WMI we also indicate the correlation previously made by Cheng et al.4 with a beige bar. Although we consider this as a plausible alternative correlation, we prefer the new correlation presented in Figs 1, 3 and 5, and in this figure. The new correlation fits much better with the original chronologies of the ice core and marine records. In addition, the match of the adjacent high δ18O AM anomalies and the ice rafted debris record7 is better with the new correlation. Some examples of initial AM rises around NHSI minima are depicted by green arrows and dashed lines, which do not appear to link directly to either global ice volume or CO2 changes.

Extended Data Figure 10 Comparison between the Holocene and MIS 11 on the basis of the insolation alignment.

a, 21 July insolation at 65° N for the Holocene (green) and MIS 11 (pink)45. b, c, Composite AM δ18O records during MIS 11 and the Holocene, respectively. d, AM cave δ18O record from the Indian monsoon domain60. e, North African monsoon record (seawater δ18O record from the marine sediment core, MD03-270, from the Gulf of Guinea)61. f, South American monsoon record from Cueva del Tigre Perdido, northern Peru40. g, South African monsoon record from Cold Air Cave, Makapansgat Valley, South Africa62. Vertical bar depicts the ‘2-kyr shift’. These records show ‘2-kyr shift’ trends that are different from their trends exhibited in the middle to late Holocene interval. The monsoon ‘2-kyr shift’ also appears to show an opposite inter-hemispheric pattern.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

This file contains 230Th dating results and δ18O time series for five stalagmites, SB-12, SB-14, SB-32, SB-58, and D8, as well as the composite AM δ18O record and detrended AM record (Δδ18O). (XLSX 633 kb)

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Cheng, H., Edwards, R., Sinha, A. et al. The Asian monsoon over the past 640,000 years and ice age terminations. Nature 534, 640–646 (2016).

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