Project Information
Water Mass Structure and Bottom Water Formation in the Ice-age Southern Ocean
Short Title:
Bottom water oxygen
Start Date:
End Date:
General: Scientists established more than 30 years ago that the climate-related variability of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over Earth’s ice-age cycles was regulated by the ocean. Hypotheses to explain how the ocean that regulates atmospheric carbon dioxide have long been debated, but they have proven to be difficult to test. This project was designed test one leading hypothesis, specifically that the ocean experienced greater density stratification during the ice ages. That is, with greater stratification during the ice ages and the slower replacement of deep water by cold dense water formed near the poles, the deep ocean would have held more carbon dioxide, which is produced by biological respiration of the organic carbon that constantly rains to the abyss in the form of dead organisms and organic debris that sink from the sunlit surface ocean. To test this hypothesis, the degree of ocean stratification during the last ice age and the rate of deep-water replacement was to be constrained by comparing the radiocarbon ages of organisms that grew in the surface ocean and at the sea floor within a critical region around Antarctica, where most of the replacement of deep waters occurs. Completing this work was expected to contribute toward improved models of future climate change. Climate scientists rely on models to estimate the amount of fossil fuel carbon dioxide that will be absorbed by the ocean in the future. Currently the ocean absorbs about 25% of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. Most of this carbon is absorbed in the Southern Ocean (the region around Antarctica). How this will change in the future is poorly known. Models have difficulty representing physical conditions in the Southern Ocean accurately, thereby adding substantial uncertainty to projections of future ocean uptake of carbon dioxide. Results of the proposed study will provide a benchmark to test the ability of models to simulate ocean processes under climate conditions distinctly different from those that occur today, ultimately leading to improvement of the models and to more reliable projections of future absorption of carbon dioxide by the ocean. Technical: The project added a research component to an existing scientific expedition to the Southern Ocean, in the region between the Ross Sea and New Zealand, that collected sediment cores at locations down the northern flank of the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge at approximately 170°W. The goal was to collect sediments at each location deposited since early in the peak of the last ice age. This region is unusual in the Southern Ocean in that sediments deposited during the last ice age contain foraminifera, tiny organisms with calcium carbonate shells, in much greater abundance than in other regions of the Southern Ocean. Foraminifera are widely used as an archive of several geochemical tracers of past ocean conditions. We proposed to compare the radiocarbon age of foraminifera that inhabited the surface ocean with the age of contemporary specimens that grew on the seabed. The difference in age between surface and deep-swelling organisms would have been used to discriminate between two proposed mechanisms of deep water renewal during the ice age: formation in coastal polynyas around the edge of Antarctica, much as occurs today, versus formation by open-ocean convection in deep-water regions far from the continent. If the latter mechanism prevails, then it was expected that surface and deep-dwelling foraminifera would exhibit similar radiocarbon ages. In the case of dominance of deep-water formation in coastal polynyas, one expects to find very different radiocarbon ages in the two populations of foraminifera. In the extreme case of greater ocean stratification during the last ice age, one even expects the surface dwellers to appear to be older than contemporary bottom dwellers because the targeted core sites lie directly under the region where the oldest deep waters outcrop at the surface following their long circuitous transit through the deep ocean. The primary objective of the proposed work was to reconstruct the water mass age structure of the Southern Ocean during the last ice age, which, in turn, is a primary factor that controls the amount of carbon dioxide stored in the deep sea. In addition, the presence of foraminifera in the cores to be recovered provides a valuable resource for many other paleoceanographic applications, such as: 1) the application of nitrogen isotopes to constrain the level of nutrient utilization in the Southern Ocean and, thus, the efficiency of the ocean’s biological pump, 2) the application of neodymium isotopes to constrain the transport history of deep water masses, 3) the application of boron isotopes and boron/calcium ratios to constrain the pH and inorganic carbon system parameters of ice-age seawater, and 4) the exploitation of metal/calcium ratios in foraminifera to reconstruct the temperature (Mg/Ca) and nutrient content (Cd/Ca) of deep waters during the last ice age at a location near their source near Antarctica. Unfortunately, the cores were shipped to the core repository in a horizontal orientation and there was sufficient distortion of the sediment that the radiocarbon ages of benthic foraminifera were uninterpretable. Therefore, we report only the radiocarbon dates for planktonic foraminifera as well as the total counts of elemental relative abundance from X-ray Fluorescence analysis of the cores. In addition, we used the expedition as an opportunity to collect water samples from which dissolved concentrations of long-lived isotope of thorium and protactinium were determined. Results from those analyses showed that lateral transport by isopycnal mixing dominates the supply of Pa to the Southern Ocean. We have also developed a new algorithm to correct for supply of Th by isopycnal mixing and thereby derive estimates of dust flux to the Southern Ocean.
Person Role
Anderson, Robert Investigator and contact
Fleisher, Martin Investigator
Pavia, Frank Investigator
Antarctic Earth Sciences Award # 1542962
AMD - DIF Record(s)
Deployment Type
NBP1702 ship expedition
Data Management Plan
None in the Database
Product Level:
0 (raw data)
  1. Pavia, F. J., Wang, S., Middleton, J., Murray, R. W., & Anderson, R. F. (2021). Trace Metal Evidence for Deglacial Ventilation of the Abyssal Pacific and Southern Oceans. Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, 36(9). (doi:10.1029/2021pa004226)
  2. Pavia, F. J., Anderson, R. F., Pinedo‐Gonzalez, P., Fleisher, M. Q., Brzezinski, M. A., & Robinson, R. S. (2020). Isopycnal Transport and Scavenging of 230Th and 231Pa in the Pacific Southern Ocean. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 34(12). (doi:10.1029/2020gb006760)
Platforms and Instruments

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