The post-glacial North Atlantic

Microfossils from marine sediments - planktoni...
Neogloboquadrina pachyderma. Image via Wikipedia

One of the main controls over Earth’s climate is the way that water in the North Atlantic convects. At present it is behaving like a liquid conveyor belt that links the tropics and well to the north of the Arctic Circle. Warm salty water that reaches boreal latitudes cools and also becomes saltier as sea ice freezes out fresh water. It therefore gets denser and sinks to the ocean floor in the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, and between Iceland and the Faeroe Isles. This downwelling drags surface water polewards from the tropics to replenish the system, thereby creating the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift that warms coastal north-western Europe as far as the northern tip of Scandinavia. It was not always this way; evidence has accumulated to indicate that the North Atlantic ‘conveyor’ shut down periodically during the run-up to the last glacial period and in the climatic hiccup of the Younger Dryas (12.6-11.5 ka). The best supported hypothesis as to why it may do that is through massive influx of freshwater to lower the density of surface water in the northernmost North Atlantic. The progressive summer retreat of sea-ice in the Arctic Ocean and the likelihood of ice-free summers there in the near future raises fears that such a shut-down may occur once again, because of freshening of surface water by ice meltwater, with devastating climatic results for Europe at least. The circulation also transports carbon dioxide dissolved in cold descending surface water to abyssal depths helping buffer its atmospheric concentration: a shut-down would allow greenhouse gas emitted by society to build up in the air.

One means of investigating the mechanisms that underlie ‘on’ and ‘off’ switching in ocean convection is to use sea-floor sediment data from the18 ka long period since the last glacial maximum (Thornalley. D.J.R. et al. 2011. The deglacial evolution of North Atlantic convection. Science, v. 331, p. 202-205). The British-US consortium used oxygen isotope data from the planktonic (near-surface) foraminifera Neogloboquadrina pachyderma preserved in sea-floor sediment cores from south of Iceland, close to where surface water descends today, to assess sea-surface temperature variations. Because of the continual exchange of CO2 between surface water and the atmosphere, the ocean surface contains the same radioactive 14C content in carbon as does the atmosphere, at whose top the isotope is produced. When water descends this connection is cut and the proportion of 14C in it decays so that it is theoretically possible to work out the time at which deep water began to descend – its ‘ventilation age’. In practice this is done by measuring the ‘age’ of  carbon preserved in planktonic and benthonic (deep- and bottom-water) foram shells, the planktonic age being the actual age used to assess the age difference between deep and surface waters. In the case of a complete shut-down of the convection the ventilation age should be high and constant; exactly the case during the last glacial maximum (19-22 ka) and most of Heinrich Stadial 1 (16.5-19 ka). When the ‘conveyor’ is functioning the ventilation age should be low, in fact from about 16-11.5 ka the ventilation age fluctuates to show 3 major and 2 lesser low to high episodes during the Bølling-Allerød and Younger Dryas, suggesting that indeed there was repeated turning-on and turning-off of the conveyor, probably triggered by pulses of fresh water into the northern North Atlantic from glacial melting. The resolution of these data is of the order of 350 years, so there may be finer detail of great interest as regards future climate.

See also: Sarnthein, M. Northern meltwater pulses, CO2, and changes in Atlantic convection. Science, v. 331, p. 156-158.

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