Response of the carbon cycle in an intermediate complexity model to the different climate configurations of the last nine interglacials

Nathaelle Bouttes*, Didier Swingedouw, Didier M. Roche, Maria F. Sanchez-Goni, Xavier Crosta

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Atmospheric CO2 levels during interglacials prior to the Mid-Brunhes Event (MBE, ĝ1/4 ĝ€-430ĝ€-kaĝ€†BP) were around 40ĝ€-ppm lower than after the MBE. The reasons for this difference remain unclear. A recent hypothesis proposed that changes in oceanic circulation, in response to different external forcings before and after the MBE, might have increased the ocean carbon storage in pre-MBE interglacials, thus lowering atmospheric CO2. Nevertheless, no quantitative estimate of this hypothesis has been produced up to now. Here we use an intermediate complexity model including the carbon cycle to evaluate the response of the carbon reservoirs in the atmosphere, ocean and land in response to the changes of orbital forcings, ice sheet configurations and atmospheric CO2 concentrations over the last nine interglacials. We show that the ocean takes up more carbon during pre-MBE interglacials in agreement with data, but the impact on atmospheric CO2 is limited to a few parts per million. Terrestrial biosphere is simulated to be less developed in pre-MBE interglacials, which reduces the storage of carbon on land and increases atmospheric CO2. Accounting for different simulated ice sheet extents modifies the vegetation cover and temperature, and thus the carbon reservoir distribution. Overall, atmospheric CO2 levels are lower during these pre-MBE simulated interglacials including all these effects, but the magnitude is still far too small. These results suggest a possible misrepresentation of some key processes in the model, such as the magnitude of ocean circulation changes, or the lack of crucial mechanisms or internal feedbacks, such as those related to permafrost, to fully account for the lower atmospheric CO2 concentrations during pre-MBE interglacials.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-253
Number of pages15
JournalClimate of the Past
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2018


Acknowledgements. We are grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments. The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 656625, project “CHOCOLATE”. We also acknowledge Warm-Clim, a LEFE-INSU IMAGO project. All the simulations have been performed on the Avakas computer cluster from the Mésocentre de Calcul Intensif Aquitain (MCIA). We thank Vincent Marieu for his assistance in setting up the model on this supercomputer. Discussions with Anne-Sophie Kremer and Thibaut Caley were useful to develop this paper and are acknowledged.

FundersFunder number
Horizon 2020 Framework Programme656625


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