The mid-Pleistocene transition

As shown by oxygen-isotope records from marine sediments, before about 1.25 Ma global climate cycled between cold and warm episodes roughly every 41 ka. Between 1.25 to 0.7 Ma these glacial-interglacial pulses lengthened to the ~100 ka periods that have characterised the last seven cycles that were also marked by larger volume of Northern Hemisphere ice-sheet cover during glacial maxima. Both periodicities have been empirically linked to regular changes in the Earth’s astronomical behaviour and their effects on the annual amount of energy received from the Sun, as predicted by Milutin Milankovich. As long ago as 1976 early investigation of changes of oxygen isotopes with depth in deep-sea sediments had revealed that their patterns closely matched Milankovich’s  hypothesis. The 41 ka periodicity matches the rate at which the Earth’s axial tilt changes, while the ~100 ka signal matches that for variation in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit. 19 and 24 ka cycles were also found in the analysis that reflect those involved in the gyroscope-like precession of the axis of rotation. Surprisingly, the 100 ka cycling follows by far the weakest astronomical effect on solar warming yet the climate fluctuations of the last 700 ka are by far the largest of the last 2.5 million years. In fact the 2 to 8 % changes in solar heat input implicated in the climate cycles are 10 times greater than those predicted even for times when all the astronomical influences act in concert. That and other deviations from Milankovich’s hypothesis suggest that some of Earth’s surface processes act to amplify the astronomical drivers. Moreover, they probably lie behind the mid-Pleistocene transition from 41 to 100 ka cyclicity. What are they? Changes in albedo related to ice- and cloud cover, and shifts in the release and absorption of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are among many suggested factors. As with many geoscientific conundrums, only more and better quality data about changes recorded in sediments that may be proxies for climatic variations are likely to resolve this one.

Adam Hazenfratz of ETH in Zurich and colleagues from several other European countries and the US have compiled details about changing surface- and deep-ocean temperatures and salinity – from δ18O and Mg/Ca ratios in foraminifera shells from a core into Southern Ocean-floor sediments – that go back 1.5 Ma (Hazenfratz, A.P. and 9 others 2019. The residence time of Southern Ocean surface waters and the 100,000-year ice age cycle. Science, v. 363, p. 1080-1084; DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7067). Differences in temperature and salinity (and thus density) gradients show up at different times in this critical sediment record. In turn, they record gross shifts in ocean circulation at high southern latitudes that may have affected the CO2 released from and absorbed by sea water. Specifically, Hazenfratz et al. teased out fluctuations in the rate of  mixing of dense, cold and salty water supplied to the Southern Ocean by deep currents with less dense surface water. Cold, dense water is able to dissolve more CO2 than does warmer surface water so that when it forms near the surface at high latitudes it draws down this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and carries it into long-term storage in the deep ocean when it sinks. Deep-water formation therefore tends to force down mean global surface temperature, the more so the longer it resides at depth. When deep water wells to the surface and warms up it releases some of its CO2 content to produce an opposite, warming influence on global climate. So, when mixing of deep and surface waters is enhanced the net result is global warming, whereas if mixing is hindered global climate undergoes cooling.


The Southern Ocean, where most dissolved and gaseous carbon dioxide are emitted and absorbed by seawater (Credit: British Antarctic Survey)

The critical factor in the rate of mixing deep with surface water is the density of that at the surface. When its salinity and density are low the surface water layer acts as a lid on what lies beneath, thereby increasing the residence time of deep water and the CO2 that it contains. This surface ‘freshening’ in the Southern Ocean seems to have begun at around 1.25 Ma and became well established 700 ka ago; that is, during the mid-Pleistocene climate transition. The phenomenon helped to lessen the greenhouse effect after 700 ka so that frigid conditions lasted longer and more glacial ice was able to accumulate, especially on the northern continents. This would have made it more difficult for the 41 ka astronomically paced changes in solar heating to have restored the rate of deep-water mixing to release sufficient CO2 to return the climate to interglacial conditions That would lengthen the glacial-interglacial cycles. The link between the new 100 ka cyclicity and very weak forcing by the varying eccentricity of Earth’s orbit may be fortuitous. So how might anthropogenic global warming affect this process? Increased melting of the Antarctic ice sheet may further freshen surface waters of the Southern Ocean, thereby slowing its mixing with deep, CO2-rich deep water and the release of stored greenhouse gases. As yet, no process leading to the decreased density of surface waters between 1.25 and 0.7 Ma has been suggested, but it seems that something similar may attend global warming.

Related articles: Menviel, L. 2019. The southern amplifier. Science, v. 363, p. 1040-1041; DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7196; The deep Southern Ocean is key to more intense ice ages (

2 responses to “The mid-Pleistocene transition

  1. typo in first paragraph, 2nd sentence (as far as I’ve read): “Between 1.25 to 0.7 ka these glacial-interglacial pulses lengthened to the ~100 ka periods …” You mean “Between 1.25 to 0.7 Ma …” (The “k” and “M” are so close on the keyboard…)

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