IODP Obtains Critical New Data on North Atlantic Climate Change

2016-06-29T10:51:15+00:00 November 17, 2004|
Core samples - Expedition 303 - North Atlantic Climate / Photo by Shannon Housley

Core samples - Expedition 303 - North Atlantic Climate / Photo by Shannon Housley

The JOIDES Resolution, a scientific drilling vessel, docked in Ponta Delgada (Azores) today after spending nearly two months at sea obtaining cores to investigate North Atlantic climate change over the last few million years. Scientists and technicians collected 4.6 kilometers of core – nearly 3 miles if laid end-to-end – that provide information on the history of ice sheets in the North Atlantic.

Initial shipboard observations of the recovered sediments indicate that the major ice sheets surrounding the North Atlantic have been unstable during most glacial intervals over at least the last million years. Because of the possible effect of low salinity meltwater on North Atlantic circulation, the signals of ice sheet instability are an important factor in understanding the effect of anthropogenic (global) warming on the modern oceanic circulation.

“This is the first time that we have been able to recover continuous, high-resolution records of ice sheet instability over the last few million years in the North Atlantic, or anywhere for that matter,” said Jim Channell, co-chief scientist of the expedition from the University of Florida.

“Considering the role of major ice sheet dynamics in abrupt climate change in the last 100,000 years, it is important to know if, and when, ice sheet instability occurred further back in time” added Toki Sato, co-chief scientist from Akita University (Japan).

For this expedition, the third of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, the ship was staffed by 30 geoscientists from Japan, U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, France and China. The ship is uniquely equipped to recover continuous sediment records from the deep ocean, and the targets for this expedition were sites where the sediments contain high-resolution archives of climate change over the last few million years. Six sites were drilled, to a depth of several hundred meters below seafloor, at locations off Newfoundland, off the southern tip of Greenland, and in the central Atlantic.

The expedition was designed to determine the history of the three large ice sheets (Laurentide, Greenland and Inuitian) that have had a dominating effect on North Atlantic climate over the last few million years. Melt (instability) events of the major ice sheets leave their mark in the sediments as detrital layers composed mainly of ice rafted debris, and as meltwater events detectable in the chemical composition of microfossils that lived in the surface waters. These detrital layers were originally detected in young (<100,000 year old ) sediments from the Central Atlantic and were termed “Heinrich events” after the German geologist who first recognized them. One of the objectives of this expedition was to determine the history of ice sheet instability further back in time, and to record this instability at locations close to the ice-sheets themselves, at the mouth of the Labrador Sea. This is the first time that such high-resolution (high sedimentation rate) records have been recovered from these critical regions of the North Atlantic, and the sedimentary records will provide unprecedented resolution in monitoring the instability of the major North Atlantic ice sheets.

Although scientists will continue to examine the cores for many years, Mitch Malone, the Leg Project Manager from Texas A&M University noted, “It is already clear that a very unique archive of climate change has been recovered, which provides hitherto unavailable resolution of changes in surface and deep-water conditions and ice sheet instability during a range of glacial and interglacial conditions since the intensification of northern hemisphere glaciation about 2.7 million years ago. The results from research on these sediments will drive North Atlantic climate studies for years to come.”

The JOIDES Resolution will return to sea in 4-5 days for an expedition to study the formation of oceanic core complexes. It will return to the North Atlantic in the spring to install an underwater observatory to measure bottom-water temperatures through time.

Photos from the expedition are available at Additional high-resolution images are available on request.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) is an international marine research drilling program dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of the Earth by monitoring and sampling subseafloor environments. Through multiple platforms, scientists explore IODP’s principal themes: the deep biosphere, environmental change, and solid earth cycles. IODP drilling platforms are operated by the. Joint Oceanographic Institutions Alliance (JOI, Texas A&M University, and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University), Japan’s Center for Deep Earth Exploration, and the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling. IODP’s initial 10-year, $1.5 billion program is supported by two lead agencies, the U.S. National Science Foundation and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology; by ECORD, and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.