Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Links between atmospheric carbon dioxide, the land carbon reservoir and climate over the past millennium

An Erratum to this article was published on 30 June 2015

This article has been updated


The stability of terrestrial carbon reservoirs is thought to be closely linked to variations in climate1, but the magnitude of carbon–climate feedbacks has proved difficult to constrain for both modern2,3,4 and millennial5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13 timescales. Reconstructions of atmospheric CO2 concentrations for the past thousand years have shown fluctuations on multidecadal to centennial timescales5,6,7, but the causes of these fluctuations are unclear. Here we report high-resolution carbon isotope measurements of CO2 trapped within the ice of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide ice core for the past 1,000 years. We use a deconvolution approach14 to show that changes in terrestrial organic carbon stores best explain the observed multidecadal variations in the δ13C of CO2 and in CO2 concentrations from 755 to 1850 CE. If significant long-term carbon emissions came from pre-industrial anthropogenic land-use changes over this interval, the emissions must have been offset by a natural terrestrial sink for 13C-depleted carbon, such as peatlands. We find that on multidecadal timescales, carbon cycle changes seem to vary with reconstructed regional climate changes. We conclude that climate variability could be an important control of fluctuations in land carbon storage on these timescales.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Carbon cycle variability of the past millennium.
Figure 2: Double-deconvolution results and anthropogenic emission scenarios.
Figure 3: Multidecadal climate and carbon cycle variability.

Change history

  • 10 June 2015

    In the print and PDF versions of this Letter originally published, the last sentence of the paragraph concerning the double-deconvolution technique should have read: "The data therefore probably rule out a net decrease in organic land carbon stocks between 755 and 1850 CE." In addition, a paper by Schuur et al. was not included in the reference list, and should have been cited as ref. 29 in the following sentence: "Permafrost carbon is also a plausible source of CO2 to the atmosphere during intervals of elevated Arctic temperature29, but would require re-expansion of permafrost into previously active soils during cold intervals to act as a sink for CO2." The remaining references have been renumbered to accommodate this addition. These errors have been corrected in the PDF version. 29. Schuur, E. A. G. et al. Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature 520, 171–179 (2015).


  1. Ciais, P. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 465–570 (IPCC, Cambridge University Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Trumbore, S. E. & Czimczik, C. I. An uncertain future for soil carbon. Science 321, 1455–1456 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Hopkins, F. M., Torn, M. S. & Trumbore, S. E. Warming accelerates decomposition of decades-old carbon in forest soils. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 1753–1761 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Arora, V. K. et al. Carbon-concentration and carbon–climate feedbacks in CMIP5 Earth System Models. J. Clim. 26, 5289–5314 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Siegenthaler, U. R. S. et al. Supporting evidence from the EPICA Dronning Maud Land ice core for atmospheric CO2 changes during the past millennium. Tellus B 57, 51–57 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. MacFarling, C. et al. Law Dome CO2, CH4 and N2O ice core records extended to 2000 years BP. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L14810 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Ahn, J. et al. Atmospheric CO2 over the last 1000 years: A high-resolution record from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide ice core. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 26, GB2027 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Joos, F., Meyer, R., Bruno, M. & Leuenberger, M. The variability in the carbon sinks as reconstructed for the last 1000 years. Geophys. Res. Lett. 26, 1437–1440 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Trudinger, C. M., Enting, I. G., Rayner, P. J. & Francey, R. J. Kalman filter analysis of ice core data—2. Double deconvolution of CO2 and delta C-13 measurements. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 4423 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Francey, R. J. et al. A 1000-year high precision record of δ13C in atmospheric CO2 . Tellus B 51, 170–193 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Rubino, M. et al. A revised 1000-year atmospheric δ13C-CO2 record from Law Dome and South Pole, Antarctica. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 8482–8499 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Frank, D. C. et al. Ensemble reconstruction constraints on the global carbon cycle sensitivity to climate. Nature 463, 527–U143 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Ruddiman, W. F. The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago. Climatic Change 61, 261–293 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Joos, F. & Bruno, M. Long-term variability of the terrestrial and oceanic carbon sinks and the budgets of the carbon isotopes C-13 and C-14. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 12, 277–295 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Bauska, T. K., Brook, E. J., Mix, A. C. & Ross, A. High precision dual-inlet IRMS measurements of the stable isotopes of CO2 and the N2O/CO2 ratio from polar ice core samples. Atmos. Meas. Tech. Discuss. 7, 6529–6564 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Böhm, F. et al. Evidence for preindustrial variations in the marine surface water carbonate system from coralline sponges. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 3 (2002)10.1029/2001GC000264

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Mann, M. E. et al. Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 13252–13257 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Marcott, S. A., Shakun, J. D., Clark, P. U. & Mix, A. C. A reconstruction of regional and global temperature for the past 11,300 years. Science 339, 1198–1201 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Spahni, R., Joos, F., Stocker, B. D., Steinacher, M. & Yu, Z. C. Transient simulations of the carbon and nitrogen dynamics in northern peatlands: From the Last Glacial Maximum to the 21st century. Clim. Past 9, 1287–1308 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Charman, D. J. et al. Climate-related changes in peatland carbon accumulation during the last millennium. Biogeosciences 10, 929–944 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Pongratz, J., Reick, C. H., Raddatz, T. & Claussen, M. Effects of anthropogenic land cover change on the carbon cycle of the last millennium. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 23, GB4001 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Stocker, B. D., Strassmann, K. & Joos, F. Sensitivity of Holocene atmospheric CO2 and the modern carbon budget to early human land use: Analyses with a process-based model. Biogeosciences 8, 69–88 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Kaplan, J. O. et al. Holocene carbon emissions as a result of anthropogenic land cover change. Holocene 21, 775–791 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Stocker, B. D., Feissli, F., Strassmann, K. M., Spahni, R. & Joos, F. Past and future carbon fluxes from land use change, shifting cultivation and wood harvest. Tellus B 66, 23188 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. PAGES 2k Consortium, Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia. Nature Geosci. 6, 339–346 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Hoffmann, T. et al. Short Communication: Humans and the missing C-sink: Erosion and burial of soil carbon through time. Earth Surf. Dynam. 1, 45–52 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Carvalhais, N. et al. Global covariation of carbon turnover times with climate in terrestrial ecosystems. Nature 514, 213–217 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Tarnocai, C. et al. Soil organic carbon pools in the northern circumpolar permafrost region. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 23, GB2023 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Schuur, E. A. G. et al. Climate change and the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature 520, 171–179 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Pongratz, J., Caldeira, K., Reick, C. H. & Claussen, M. Coupled climate–carbon simulations indicate minor global effects of wars and epidemics on atmospheric CO2 between ad 800 and 1850. Holocene 21, 843–851 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Tierney, J. E. et al. Late-twentieth-century warming in Lake Tanganyika unprecedented since AD 500. Nature Geosci. 3, 422–425 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Carbon isotope work was supported by NSF Grant 0839078 (E.J.B. and A.C.M.). Oregon State University provided additional support for mass spectrometer purchase and management of the OSU/CEOAS stable isotope laboratory. J.A. was partially supported by a National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) Grant funded by the Korean Government (MSIP) 2014R1A1A2A16054779. F.J. and R.R. are grateful for financial contributions by the Swiss National Science Foundation, including contributions through the Sinergia Project iTree (grant no. 136295), and by the European Commission through the FP7 project CARBOCHANGE (grant no. 264879) and Past4Future (grant no. 243908). We appreciate the support of the WAIS Divide Science Coordination Office for the collection and distribution of the WAIS Divide ice core (Kendrick Taylor (Desert Research Institute of Reno Nevada), NSF Grants 0230396, 0440817, 0944348 and 0944266—University of New Hampshire). The NSF also funds the Ice Drilling Program Office, Ice Drilling Design and Operations group, which leads coring activities, and The National Ice Core Laboratory, which curates the core and performs core processing. We thank J. Severinghaus for providing δ15N of N2 data, Raytheon Polar Services for logistics support in Antarctica, and the 109th New York Air National Guard for airlift in Antarctica.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



T.K.B., E.J.B. and A.C.M. designed the study with the climate–carbon cycle analysis conceived and performed by T.K.B. and A.C.M. T.K.B. developed the carbon isotope analytical system with E.J.B. and A.C.M. T.K.B. produced the carbon isotope data and J.A. produced the CO2 concentration data. F.J. and R.R. assisted T.K.B. with the deconvolution modelling. T.K.B. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas K. Bauska.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 2283 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (XLSX 681 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bauska, T., Joos, F., Mix, A. et al. Links between atmospheric carbon dioxide, the land carbon reservoir and climate over the past millennium. Nature Geosci 8, 383–387 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing