What caused the Mid Pleistocene Transition? Insights from a new high resolution CO2 record

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Ocean and Earth Science


The geological past contains many examples of Earth's climate being different to today and these are excellent test beds for our understanding of the climate system and ultimately our predictions of our future climate. Over the last 600 thousand years (kyr) or so, the Earth's climate has regularly oscillated, roughly every 100 kyr, between warm "interglacial" periods with climates similar to today, and frigid "glacial" periods when several kilometres of ice blanketed North America and northern Europe (at times extending into Siberia). Bubbles of ancient air trapped in ice cores from Antarctica reveal that these cyclical changes in climate were partly driven by changes in the atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) - CO2 was low during glacial periods and high during intervening interglacial periods. During each ice age cycle, cooling towards peak glacial climates tended to be rather slow (taking around 90 kyr) whereas the warming that terminates each glacial period tended to be very quick (~10 kyr in length). However, before about 1.2 million years ago Earth's climate was warmer on average, there was less ice on the continents and climate cycles were more regular, symmetric, and shorter - they followed a 41 kyr orbital beat at that time. Gradually between 1.2 and 0.6 million years ago, the character of glacial-interglacial cycles changed, shifting from these smaller 41-kyr cycles to the more recent larger 100-kyr cycles. Climate scientists have studied this important interval, known as the Mid Pleistocene Transition (MPT), for decades to learn about the inner workings of the climate system, but as yet the underlying cause remains debated.

Despite their contrasting character, these two types of climate cycle were both paced by subtle variations in the amount and the spatial and seasonal distribution of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface as a result of regular changes in how the Earth orbits the sun (known as orbital cycles). What is puzzling is that the change in the nature of the climate cycles occurred in the absence of any notable change in these orbital cycles. It therefore represents a fundamental change in the way the climate system operates and in particular how certain feedbacks behave when the climate system is subjected to forcing.

In order to test which, if any, of the available models adequately explains this transition we need reconstructions of both the size of the continental ice sheets and knowledge of the concentration of atmospheric CO2. While the evolution of ice volume through time is known relatively well, the direct ice core record of atmospheric CO2 only covers the last 800 thousand years and it is unlikely that it can be extended further back in the near future (if at all). We therefore have to use other, more indirect methods to reconstruct the CO2 content of the ancient atmosphere. One approach with a proven track record uses the boron (B) isotopic composition of calcareous microfossils called foraminifera, which steadily accumulate over time in deep-sea sediments. There are two naturally occurring isotopes of boron and the ratio of these two isotopes, 11B to 10B, in the shells of foraminifera reflects the acidity of the ocean surface when they lived, and from this it is possible to estimate atmospheric CO2 at that time. The principal aim of this proposal is to use this method to produce a record of CO2 for the last 1.3 million years that overlaps with the ice core CO2 record but then extends this back to cover the Mid Pleistocene Transition. Putting our current understanding of the MPT to the test in this way promises new insights into the coupling of climate change and the global carbon cycle, thereby also ultimately shedding light on how climate and polar ice sheets will respond to fossil fuel burning.

Planned Impact

The principal aim of this project is to deliver a substantial scientific impact by providing an increased understanding of the natural drivers of Earth's climate. By revealing new aspects in the relationship between atmospheric CO2 and key elements of the climate system such as ice-volume and sea-level this study will ultimately contribute to efforts to determine the sensitivity of the climate system to CO2 forcing - a key metric for policy makers to define forthcoming national commitments under the COP21 agreement. As such our research will contribute to a broad base of climate science, which is used to inform policy and legislation in the UK and beyond. Indeed, it is likely (as our previous work has done) to be part of the assessment reports (AR) made by the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is a scientific body under the auspices of the United Nations and involves thousands of scientists from around the world. Currently 195 countries are members of the IPCC and the governments of all these countries participate in the review and acceptance of the reports. The reports therefore clearly play a role in setting policy at many different levels. Both Foster and Rohling were contributing authors on the palaeoclimate chapter of the most recent report (AR5; http://ipcc.ch), and both will endeavour to be involved in the next report (due around 2020) and in a number of relevant special reports published in the interim (e.g. http://www.ipcc.ch/activities/activities.shtml). By informing the full range of stake-holders in the implementation and continuous re-assessment of national emission reduction pledges according to the COP21 agreement this research is likely to have direct and indirect economic impact.

Anthropogenic climate change is recognised by the general public as one of the great challenges of our time. Consequently, climate science research is very topical. Based on our experience, examples of climate change in the geological past, and the lessons that can be learnt, have a particular resonance with the general public. Therefore, beyond the immediate academic users, we will engage with the public by building on existing outreach activities (e.g. NOCS Ocean and Earth Day, Pint of Science, Winchester Science Festival) in several ways:

1. All research output will have a press release (co-ordinated by the experienced team at the University of Southampton) and existing local and national media links will be exploited. For instance, we will contribute to climate change web blogs, twitter (@theFosterlab) and conventional media to promote our research to the general public. We have had considerable experience and success with this in the past, e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31131336, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03xfgx6#play.

2. We will establish a proposal website (e.g., www.thefosterlab.org) that includes videos of our research and short 1.5 min videos/animations of the concepts and techniques we use (produced with local media company Cass Productions). We will also undertake activities to ensure a high-profile web presence (blogs and twitter). Our previous attempts at this have worked well (http://descentintotheicehouse.org.uk/ & www.thefosterlab.org).

3. Each investigator will carry out at least one public lecture a year, we will also develop material for schools that specifically deal with the outcomes of this project and will be hosted on our website.

4. We will host 6th form and undergraduate interns in the laboratory of the PI to expose them to cutting edge research techniques.

5. We will develop a mobile exhibit based on a simple physical model of the Earth (Earth in a Bottle - http://www.thefosterlab.org/blog/2016/4/16/co2-experiment) to illustrate the physical basis of CO2-related climate change. Details of how to perform the experiment will be available on our project website.


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Description There have been the following key findings thus far:

1. Our early results (published in PNAS - Chalk et al., 2017) show that the natural cycles in atmospheric CO2 were smaller prior to around 1 million years ago. This was likely due to a reduction in the Fe fertilisation of the southern ocean during pre-1Ma glacials.
2. We published a study presenting a new method for calculating radiative forcing from CO2 change given boron isotope based pH (Hain et al. 2018, P&P).
3. We integrated estimates of climate sensitivity with a simple model of the climate system to narrow the predictions of when internationally agreed climate targets will be breached.
Exploitation Route Atmospheric CO2 is a key driver of climate - we have already published a snap shot of CO2 prior to the ice core CO2 record, this will be of great use to palaeoceanographers and

Our improved methodologies for determine radiative forcing from d11B-derived pH will be of great use going forward in using the boron isotope proxy to constrain climate forcing.

Our modelling studies have refined climate sensitivity - a value describing how much the Earth warms or cools given a change in radiative budget (http://www.thefosterlab.org/blog/2018/1/22/narrowing-in-on-equilibrium-climate-sensitivity), and carbon budgets for internationally agreed climate targets (https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-how-much-carbon-budget-is-left-to-limit-global-warming-to-1-5c)
Sectors Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://www.thefosterlab.org
Description PI Foster was a contributing author on the 6th assessment report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change that was published in summer 2021. The outputs of this research (Chalk et al. 2017 PNAS; de la Vega et al. 2020) figured heavily in Chapter 2 (e.g. Figure 2.3). Both studies were also insturmental in defining the CO2 levels of the Plio-Pleistocene that were used to frame the following headline statement A.2.1 in the Summary for Policy Makes "In 2019, atmospheric CO 2 concentrations were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years (high confidence)...". This statement also figured in graphics used to announce the publication of the report.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Press coverage of de la Vega et al. (2020) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A press release for de la Vega et al. (2020; https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-67154-8/) was picked up by 26 new agencies including The Guardian.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/09/co2-in-earths-atmosphere-nearing-levels-of-15m-y...
Description Radio Interview (award winning) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A BBC radio programme featuring Southampton Professor Gavin Foster won an international award for science journalism.
The programme, broadcast on the BBC's World Service in October 2017, was based around a listener's question about ancient carbon dioxide levels compared to what they are today. Producer Cathy Edwards complimented Professor Foster on his contribution which she said was a "real highlight and played a part in the programme's success".
During his interview, Professor Foster, a specialist in Isotope Geochemistry, described how he is able to determine historic CO2 levels going back millions of years by studying ancient sea fossils drawn from sediment samples recovered from the sea floor.

The Science Journalism Awards have been administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since their inception in 1945 to honour distinguished reporting for a general audience around the world. The awards are endowed by The Kavli Foundation which is dedicated to advancing science for public benefit and understanding.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3csv3f1
Description School Visit 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact As part of the speakers for schools scheme (https://www.speakers4schools.org/) that aims to expose state school children to external speakers who are leading their respective fields. I have given two talks in 2019 to two local schools: Bittern Park School and Millbrook community school (both in Southampton) to year 9,10 and 11 pupils (200 or so in total)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.speakers4schools.org/about-us/