Earth's climate and the concentrations of the atmospheric greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO(2)) and nitrous oxide (N(2)O) varied strongly on millennial timescales during past glacial periods. Large and rapid warming events in Greenland and the North Atlantic were followed by more gradual cooling, and are highly correlated with fluctuations of N(2)O as recorded in ice cores. Antarctic temperature variations, on the other hand, were smaller and more gradual, showed warming during the Greenland cold phase and cooling while the North Atlantic was warm, and were highly correlated with fluctuations in CO(2). Abrupt changes in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) have often been invoked to explain the physical characteristics of these Dansgaard-Oeschger climate oscillations, but the mechanisms for the greenhouse-gas variations and their linkage to the AMOC have remained unclear. Here we present simulations with a coupled model of glacial climate and biogeochemical cycles, forced only with changes in the AMOC. The model simultaneously reproduces characteristic features of the Dansgaard-Oeschger temperature, as well as CO(2) and N(2)O fluctuations. Despite significant changes in the land carbon inventory, CO(2) variations on millennial timescales are dominated by slow changes in the deep ocean inventory of biologically sequestered carbon and are correlated with Antarctic temperature and Southern Ocean stratification. In contrast, N(2)O co-varies more rapidly with Greenland temperatures owing to fast adjustments of the thermocline oxygen budget. These results suggest that ocean circulation changes were the primary mechanism that drove glacial CO(2) and N(2)O fluctuations on millennial timescales.
Comment In: Nature. 2008 Nov 20;456(7220):331-319020606