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A long marine history of carbon cycle modulation by orbital-climatic changes

  • Timothy D. Herbert
The National Academy of Sciences of the USA
Publication Date
Aug 05, 1997


Pacing of the marine carbon cycle by orbital forcing during the Pliocene and Pleistocene Ice Ages [past 2.5 million years (Myr)] is well known. As older deep-sea sediment records are being studied at greater temporal resolution, it is becoming clear that similar fluctuations in the marine carbon system have occurred throughout the late Mesozoic and Tertiary, despite the absence of large continental ice sheets over much of this time. Variations in both the organic and the calcium carbonate components of the marine carbon system seem to have varied cyclically in response to climate forcing, and carbon and carbonate time series appear to accurately characterize the frequency spectrum of ancient climatic change. For the past 35 Myr, much of the variance in carbonate content carries the “polar” signal of obliquity [41,000 years (41 kyr)] forcing. Over the past 125 Myr, there is evidence from marine sediments of the continued role of precessional (≈21 kyr) climatic cycles. Repeat patterns of sedimentation at about 100, 400, and 2,400 kyr, the modulation periods of precession, persistently enter into marine carbon cycle records as well. These patterns suggest a nonlinear response of climate and/or the sedimentation of organic carbon and carbonates to precessional orbital perturbations. Nonlinear responses of the carbon system may help to amplify relatively weak orbital insolation anomalies into more significant climatic perturbations through positive feedback effects. Nonlinearities in the carbon cycle may have transformed orbital-climatic cycles into long-wavelength features on time scales comparable to the residence times of carbon and nutrient elements in the ocean.

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