Global ocean heat content in the Last Interglacial


The Last Interglacial (129–116 thousand years ago (ka)) represents one of the warmest climate intervals of the past 800,000 years and the most recent time when sea level was metres higher than today. However, the timing and magnitude of the peak warmth varies between reconstructions, and the relative importance of individual sources that contribute to the elevated sea level (mass gain versus seawater expansion) during the Last Interglacial remains uncertain. Here we present the first mean ocean temperature record for this interval from noble gas measurements in ice cores and constrain the thermal expansion contribution to sea level. Mean ocean temperature reached its maximum value of 1.1 ± 0.3 °C warmer-than-modern values at the end of the penultimate deglaciation at 129 ka, which resulted in 0.7 ± 0.3 m of thermosteric sea-level rise relative to present level. However, this maximum in ocean heat content was a transient feature; mean ocean temperature decreased in the first several thousand years of the interglacial and achieved a stable, comparable-to-modern value by ~127 ka. The synchroneity of the peak in mean ocean temperature with proxy records of abrupt transitions in the oceanic and atmospheric circulation suggests that the mean ocean temperature maximum is related to the accumulation of heat in the ocean interior during the preceding period of reduced overturning circulation.

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Fig. 1: MOT anomaly from Kr/N2, Xe/N2 and Xe/Kr.
Fig. 2: Surface and MOT anomalies during the LIG.
Fig. 3: Climate records of Terminations II and I.

Data availability

The presented data are available online at

Change history

  • 07 February 2020

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


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This research was supported by NSF grants 1246148 (SIO), 1245821 (OSU) and 1245659 (UR). We thank K. Schroeder, M. Jayred, P. Sperlich, I. Vimont, J. Ward, H. Roop, P. Neff and A. Smith for their invaluable field support for this project. Ice Drilling Design and Operations (IDDO) provided drilling support, and the US Antarctic Program provided logistical support for this project. Thanks to R. Beaudette for lab support at SIO, to M. Kalk for CO2 measurements at OSU and to M. Arienzo and N. Chellman for their heroic operation of the continuous melting system at DRI. The research at the University of Bern that led to these results received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme FP7/2007–2013 ERC Grant 226172 (ERC Advanced Grant Modern Approaches to Temperature Reconstructions in polar Ice Cores (MATRICs)) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (200020_172506 (iCEP), 200021_155906 (NOTICE)). The EDC samples were obtained under the framework of EPICA, a joint European Science Foundation/European Commission scientific program funded by the European Union and national contributions from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. The main logistic support was provided by IPEV and PNRA at Dome C.

Author information

J.P.S. and S.S. designed the research. S.S., M.H., D.B. and T.K. performed the noble gas measurements. J.A.M., E.J.B., R.H.R., J.R.M. and S.S. performed the trace gas field/lab measurements for the TG age model. S.S., D.B., J.A.M., M.N.D., B.B., T.K.B., R.H.R., E.J.B., V.V.P., M.J.R., T.K., M.H., J.S., H.F. and J.P.S. analysed the data. S.S. wrote the paper with input from all the authors.

Correspondence to S. Shackleton.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–8, Supplementary Discussion and Supplementary Tables 1–4.

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Shackleton, S., Baggenstos, D., Menking, J.A. et al. Global ocean heat content in the Last Interglacial. Nat. Geosci. 13, 77–81 (2020).

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