Radiocarbon constraints on the glacial ocean circulation and its impact on atmospheric CO$_2$

05 Aug 2017

While the ocean's large-scale overturning circulation is thought to have been significantly different under the climatic conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), the exact nature of the glacial circulation and its implications for global carbon cycling continue to be debated. Here we use a global array of ocean-atmosphere radiocarbon disequilibrium estimates to demonstrate a ~689±53 $^{14}$C-yr increase in the average residence time of carbon in the deep ocean at the LGM. A predominantly southern-sourced abyssal overturning limb that was more isolated from its shallower northern counterparts is interpreted to have extended from the Southern Ocean, producing a widespread radiocarbon age maximum at mid-depths and depriving the deep ocean of a fast escape route for accumulating respired carbon. While the exact magnitude of the resulting carbon cycle impacts remains to be confirmed, the radiocarbon data suggest an increase in the efficiency of the biological carbon pump that could have accounted for as much as half of the glacial-interglacial CO$_2$ change.