News Archive

posted 04/07/05

Ice Age Ocean Circulation Reacted To, Did Not Cause, Climate Change at Glacial Boundaries
New tracer demonstrates carbon cycle changes preceded thermohaline changes

by Jennifer Freeman

Great Ocean Conveyer Belt

The Great Ocean Conveyer Belt

Scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) have provided new evidence that ocean circulation changes lagged behind, and were not the cause of, major climate changes at the beginning and end of the last ice age (short intervals known as glacial boundaries), according to a study published in the March 25, 2005 issue of Science magazine.

Both ice sheet volume and the “global carbon budget,” the amount of carbon stored in deep ocean reservoirs compared to that on the earth’s surface, changed before ocean circulation patterns changed, according to evidence from deep sea cores taken from the South Atlantic. Thermohaline (heat and salt) ocean circulation changes were found to have occurred 1,000-3,000 years after carbon shifts in each case.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory team, which included Steve Goldstein, Alexander Piotrowski (now a postdoctoral student at Cambridge University), Sidney Hemming, and Richard Fairbanks, identified a chemical marker, isotopes of the rare earth element neodymium (Nd), that they believe reveals the progression of ancient ocean circulation changes more unequivocally than did carbon isotope ratios used to study the chronology of these ancient climate changes previously.

Neodynium Isotope Graph

Scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found a new proxy for ocean circulation, using neodymium isotopes in a deep sea core to study climate change history.

The Nd markers provided evidence that changes in the ocean’s thermohaline circulation rate came later than both carbon budget shifts and changes in ice sheet volume at the start and end of the last ice age. In other words, the ocean’s “conveyor belt” system did not trigger the changing conditions of cold and ice on the surface of Earth but rather responded to them.

“This was an unusual use of neodymium (Nd) isotopes, which are more often applied to magmatism and continent-mantle evolution studies,” explains co-author Steve Goldstein. “Our study illustrates its great potential for the study of the history of climate change.” Goldstein is a geochemist who is Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Senior Researcher at LDEO.

Ice ages are driven by changes in the amount of heat that arrives at the poles from the sun. The carbon cycle shifts were likely caused by the decline of plant life on the planet’s surface because of the cold and the advancing ice sheets. The ocean’s circulation system amplifies the effect of the sun’s heat through warmth brought to high latitudes by the Gulf Stream, whose saltiness affects how fast it sinks and begins the deep water arm of the global ocean “conveyor belt” circulation back to the South.

Ocean circulation changes “amplified” the climate trends that started the advance of continental ice sheets 70,000 years ago, making it colder in the high latitudes, as well as those that caused the retreat of ice sheets that ended the most recent ice age about 15,000 years ago, making it warmer.

The deep sea core showed that ocean circulation also changed during several smaller abrupt periods of warming during the last ice age, but these showed no obvious time sequence among the proxies for ice sheet growth, carbon cycle, and ocean circulation, leaving open the possibility that ocean circulation changes could in fact have been the trigger of these warmings.

The neodymium in ocean water comes from weathering of the continental rock. The isotope ratios of dissolved neodymium “dye” the ocean water, Goldstein explains, and the Nd in the Pacific (where more molten rock is brought up from the earth’s mantle in volcanic activity) has a different signature than that in the Atlantic. The amount of North Atlantic Deep Water, as determined by Nd isotopes in a deep sea sediment core, can thus be used to trace ocean circulation. The team plans to continue to investigate the usefulness of neodymium as a proxy for ocean circulation in studying the history of climate change, using cores from other locations and depths.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a member of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, is one of the world’s leading research centers examining the planet from its core to its atmosphere, across every continent and every ocean. From global climate change to earthquakes, volcanoes, environmental hazards and beyond, Observatory scientists provide the basic knowledge of Earth systems needed to inform the future health and habitability of our planet. For more information please visit

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit