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Stepwise transition from the Eocene greenhouse to the Oligocene icehouse


In the largest global cooling event of the Cenozoic Era, between 33.8 and 33.5 Myr ago, warm, high-CO2 conditions gave way to the variable ‘icehouse’ climates that prevail today. Despite intense study, the history of cooling versus ice-sheet growth and sea-level fall reconstructed from oxygen isotope values in marine sediments at the transition has not been resolved. Here, we analyse oxygen isotopes and Mg/Ca ratios of benthic foraminifera, and integrate the results with the stratigraphic record of sea-level change across the Eocene–Oligocene transition from a continental-shelf site at Saint Stephens Quarry, Alabama. Comparisons with deep-sea (Sites 522 (South Atlantic) and 1218 (Pacific)) δ18O and Mg/Ca records enable us to reconstruct temperature, ice-volume and sea-level changes across the climate transition. Our records show that the transition occurred in at least three distinct steps, with an increasing influence of ice volume on the oxygen isotope record as the transition progressed. By the early Oligocene, ice sheets were 25% larger than present. This growth was associated with a relative sea-level decrease of approximately 105 m, which equates to a 67 m eustatic fall.

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Figure 1: SSQ proxy data for ice volume, temperature and sea level.
Figure 2: Comparisons of δ18Obf from Site 522 (ref. 7), Site 1218 (ref. 8) and SSQ (see Supplementary Information, Table S2).
Figure 3: Comparisons of δw from Site 522, Site 1218, and SSQ with sea level.


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This research was supported by NSF grants OCE 06-23256 (M.E.K., K.G.M., B.S.W., J.D.W.), EAR03-07112 (K.G.M.) and EAR05-06720 (K.G.M.).

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Correspondence to Miriam E. Katz.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary figures S1 and tables S1-S2 (PDF 172 kb)

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Katz, M., Miller, K., Wright, J. et al. Stepwise transition from the Eocene greenhouse to the Oligocene icehouse. Nature Geosci 1, 329–334 (2008).

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