Late Miocene global cooling and the rise of modern ecosystems


During the late Miocene epoch, about seven million years ago, large areas of the continents experienced drying, enhanced seasonality, and a restructuring of terrestrial plant and animal communities. These changes are seen throughout the subtropics, but have typically been attributed to regional tectonic forcing. Here we present a set of globally distributed sea surface temperature records spanning the past 12 million years based on the alkenone unsaturation method. We find that a sustained late Miocene cooling occurred synchronously in both hemispheres, and culminated with ocean temperatures dipping to near-modern values between about 7 and 5.4 million years ago. The period of maximum cooling coincides with evidence for transient glaciations in the Northern Hemisphere and with a steepening of the pole-to-equator temperature gradient, as well. We thus infer that late Miocene aridity and terrestrial ecosystem changes occurred in a global context of increasing meridional temperature gradients. We conclude that a global forcing mechanism, such as the previously hypothesized decline in atmospheric CO2 levels between eight and six million years ago, is required to explain the late Miocene changes in temperature, climate and ecosystems.

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Figure 1: Map of the Deep Sea Drilling Program, the Ocean Drilling Program and Integrated Ocean Drilling Program site locations used in this study.
Figure 2: Temperature evolution over the past 12 Myr for the sites in Fig. 1.
Figure 3: Late Miocene to present climate and carbon cycle changes.


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Portions of this work were funded by the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society, by the Evolving Earth Foundation, and by NSF grants to T.D.H., K.T.L. and L.C.P. (0623487, 1304366, 1459280, and 1545859). We thank D. Muller, J. Cannon and M. Seton for help with GPlates backtracking software, A. Alpert and A. Martin for laboratory analyses, C. Riihimaki for assistance in creating Fig. 1 and J.-E. Lee, S. C. Clemens, C. Janis and C. Bolton for comments on earlier drafts. We gratefully acknowledge assistance by the curators for the IODP

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T.D.H. and K.T.L. conceived the idea of a global synthesis of late Miocene SST estimates based on the alkenone method and wrote the majority of the text. K.T.L., L.C.P., C.S.K., R.C.-G. and A.T. provided primary data based on their laboratory work, and contributed to the analysis and the text. K.T.L. produced the figures.

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Correspondence to Timothy D. Herbert.

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Herbert, T., Lawrence, K., Tzanova, A. et al. Late Miocene global cooling and the rise of modern ecosystems. Nature Geosci 9, 843–847 (2016).

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