"It's essentially what we call a water mass tracer," Martin said. "You can tell where the water masses have formed and where they have moved to by using this tracer."
The researchers took samples that had been shown to have old carbon in them and measured the neodymium isotopes on fish teeth from the sediments to see if they could reconstruct whether they had come from the North Pacific or the Southern Ocean, she said.
"When we did this, we got a signal that looks very much like the Southern Ocean," she said. "It implies that all the carbon was being stored in the Southern Hemisphere and as the ice sheet melted back, it released that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing part of the big increase in carbon dioxide and introducing old carbon back into the atmosphere."
By giving information about environmental conditions during the last glacial period, the research findings can help scientists to reconstruct what the world was like at that time, she said.
The implications are that while large amounts of carbon could be stored in the ocean when there was a great deal of sea ice, the opposite is the case in a world that is warming, with less ice, which allows more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, Martin said. Thus, in a warming scenario the oceans may not be able to store as much carbon dioxide as they could under glacial conditions
The oceans are a critical part of the carbon dioxide cycle, Martin said. "The oceans have 60 times more carbon dioxide in them than the atmosphere, so when we worry about what's happening with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we often look to the oceans as a potential source or sink."
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during the glacial
|Contact: Ellen Martin|
University of Florida