Periodic changes in the Cretaceous ocean and climate caused by marine redox see-saw


Periodic changes in sediment composition are usually ascribed to insolation forcing controlled by Earth’s orbital parameters. During the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum at 97–91 Myr ago (Ma), a 37–50-kyr-long cycle that is generally believed to reflect obliquity forcing dominates the sediment record. Here, we use a numerical ocean model to show that a cycle of this length can be generated by marine biogeochemical processes without applying orbital forcing. According to our model, the restricted proto-North Atlantic and Tethys basins were poorly ventilated and oscillated between iron-rich and sulfidic (euxinic) states. The Panthalassa Basin was fertilized by dissolved iron originating from the proto-North Atlantic. Hence, it was less oxygenated while the proto-North Atlantic was in an iron-rich state and better oxygenated during euxinic periods in the proto-North Atlantic. This redox see-saw was strong enough to create significant changes in atmospheric \(p_{\mathrm {CO}_2}\). We conclude that most of the variability in the mid-Cretaceous ocean–atmosphere system can be ascribed to the internal redox see-saw and its response to external orbital forcing.

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Fig. 1: Response of the REDBIO model to changes in the riverine P flux.
Fig. 2: REDBIO results for constant \(p_{\mathrm {CO}_2}\) (500 ppmv) and riverine P flux (116 Gmol yr1).
Fig. 3: The redox see-saw in the mid-Cretaceous ocean.
Fig. 4: REDBIO results for dynamic pCO2 and riverine P flux.
Fig. 5: Spectral analysis of model results.

Data availability

The authors declare that the data supporting the findings of this study are available within the Article and its Supplementary Information.

Code availability

The UVic model and the REDBIO box model (written in MATHEMATICA) are available from S.F. ( and K.W., respectively.


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This study was supported by the German Research Foundation via Collaborative Research Center 754 (Climate–Biogeochemistry Interactions in the Tropical Ocean, SFB 754) and the Emmy Noether Program (independent junior research group ICONOX). Further support was provided by the Helmholtz Association via the ESM project.

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K.W. designed REDBIO and wrote the manuscript. S.F., S.S. and T.P.K. set up the UVic Earth System Model with the mid-Cretaceous continent configuration. F.S. contributed to the discussion of biogeochemical cycling in anoxic oceans. A.W.D supported the development of REDBIO. W.K. helped in the interpretation of the mid-Cretaceous geological record and the spectral analysis of model results.

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Correspondence to Klaus Wallmann.

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Wallmann, K., Flögel, S., Scholz, F. et al. Periodic changes in the Cretaceous ocean and climate caused by marine redox see-saw. Nat. Geosci. 12, 456–461 (2019).

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