Pleistocene sea-surface temperature evolution: Early cooling, delayed glacial intensification, and implications for the mid-Pleistocene climate transition

Erin L. McClymont, Sindia M. Sosdian, Antoni Rosell-Melé, Yair Rosenthal

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131 Citations (Scopus)


The mid-Pleistocene climate transition (MPT) is defined by the emergence of high amplitude, quasi-100ka glacial-interglacial cycles from a prior regime of more subtle 41kacycles. This change in periodicity and amplitude cannot be explained by a change in 'external' astronomical forcing. Here, we review and integrate published records of sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) to assess whether a common global expression of the MPT in the surface ocean can be recognized, and examine our findings in light of mechanisms proposed to explain climate system reorganization across the MPT. We show that glacial-interglacial variability in SSTs is superimposed upon a longer-term cooling trend in oceanographic systems spanning the low- to high-latitudes. Regional variability exists in the timing of the onset and magnitude of cooling but, in most cases, a long-term cooling trend begins or intensifies from ~1.2Ma (Marine Isotope Stage, MIS, 35-34). The SST cooling accompanies a long-term trend towards higher global ice volume as recorded in benthic foraminifera δ18O, but predates a step-like increase in δ18O at ~0.9Ma (MIS 24-22) that is argued to reflect expansion of continental ice-sheets. The strongest expression of Pleistocene cooling is found during glacial stages, whereas minor or negligible trends in interglacial temperatures are identified. However, pronounced cooling during both glacial and interglacial maxima is evident at 0.9Ma. Alongside the long-term SST cooling trends, quasi-100kacycles begin to emerge in both the SST and δ18O records at 1.2Ma, and become dominant with the expansion of the ice-sheets at 0.9Ma. We show that the intensified glacial-stage cooling is accompanied by evolving pCO2, abyssal ocean ventilation, atmospheric circulation and/or dust inputs to the Southern Ocean. These changes in diverse environmental parameters suggest that glacial climate boundary conditions evolved across the MPT. In turn, these modified boundary conditions may have altered climate sensitivity to orbital forcing by placing pre-existing ice-sheets closer to some threshold of climate-ice sheet response. © 2013 Elsevier B.V..
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-193
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2013


  • 100kyr world
  • Ice sheets
  • Mid-Pleistocene transition
  • Sea surface temperatures


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