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Influence of Bering Strait flow and North Atlantic circulation on glacial sea-level changes

Abstract

Sea-level fluctuations of about 20–30 m occurred throughout the last glacial period. These fluctuations seem to have been derived primarily from changes in the volume of Northern Hemisphere ice sheets1,2,3, and cannot be attributed solely to ice melt caused by varying solar radiation4. Here we use a fully coupled climate model to show that the transport of relatively fresh Pacific water into the North Atlantic Ocean was limited when lower sea level restricted or closed the Bering Strait, resulting in saltier North Atlantic surface waters. This invigorated deep convection in the North Atlantic Ocean, strengthening meridional overturning circulation and northward heat transport in our model, which consequently promoted melting of ice sheets in North America and Europe. Our simulations show that the associated sea-level rise led to a reopening of the Bering Strait; the flux of relatively fresh water into the North Atlantic Ocean muted meridional overturning circulation and led to cooling and ice-sheet advance in the Northern Hemisphere. We conclude that the repetition of this cycle could produce the sea-level changes that have been observed throughout the last glacial cycle.

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Figure 1: Sea-level and solar-radiation variations.
Figure 2: Changes of the oceanic meridional circulation and associated transports.
Figure 3: Seasonal mean daily maximum surface temperature anomaly produced by closure of the Bering Strait.
Figure 4: Annual positive degree day and precipitation anomaly.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank W. H. Lipscomb for the constructive discussion of the positive degree day method. A portion of this study was supported by the Office of Science (BER), US Department of Energy, Cooperative Agreement No. DE-FC02-97ER62402. The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

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A.H. led the project and did the simulations and the major analyses, G.A.M., B.L.O.-B. and W.H. helped with the experiment design and data analysis, C.W., K.L. and J.X.M. provided the sea-level and ice-sheet data, M.-F.L. contributed the solar radiation data, and N.R. helped to set the simulations. All authors contributed extensively to writing the paper and analysing the results.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aixue Hu.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Hu, A., Meehl, G., Otto-Bliesner, B. et al. Influence of Bering Strait flow and North Atlantic circulation on glacial sea-level changes. Nature Geosci 3, 118–121 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo729

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