Deep ocean temperatures through time

Paul J. Valdes*, Christopher R. Scotese, Daniel J. Lunt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)
211 Downloads (Pure)


Benthic oxygen isotope records are commonly used as a proxy for global mean surface temperatures during the Late Cretaceous and Cenozoic, and the resulting estimates have been extensively used in characterizing major trends and transitions in the climate system and for analysing past climate sensitivity. However, some fundamental assumptions governing this proxy have rarely been tested. Two key assumptions are (a) benthic foraminiferal temperatures are geographically well mixed and are linked to surface high-latitude temperatures, and (b) surface high-latitude temperatures are well correlated with global mean temperatures. To investigate the robustness of these assumptions through geological time, we performed a series of 109 climate model simulations using a unique set of paleogeographical reconstructions covering the entire Phanerozoic at the stage level. The simulations have been run for at least 5000 model years to ensure that the deep ocean is in dynamic equilibrium. We find that the correlation between deep ocean temperatures and global mean surface temperatures is good for the Cenozoic, and thus the proxy data are reliable indicators for this time period, albeit with a standard error of 2 K. This uncertainty has not normally been assessed and needs to be combined with other sources of uncertainty when, for instance, estimating climate sensitivity based on using δ18O measurements from benthic foraminifera. The correlation between deep and global mean surface temperature becomes weaker for pre-Cenozoic time periods (when the paleogeography is significantly different from the present day). The reasons for the weaker correlation include variability in the source region of the deep water (varying hemispheres but also varying latitudes of sinking), the depth of ocean overturning (some extreme warm climates have relatively shallow and sluggish circulations weakening the link between the surface and deep ocean), and the extent of polar amplification (e.g. ice albedo feedbacks). Deep ocean sediments prior to the Cretaceous are rare, so extending the benthic foraminifera proxy further into deeper time is problematic, but the model results presented here would suggest that the deep ocean temperatures from such time periods would probably be an unreliable indicator of global mean surface conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1483-1506
Number of pages24
JournalClimate of the Past
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements. Daniel J. Lunt and Paul J. Valdes acknowledge funding from NERC through grant no. NE/P013805/1. The production of paleogeographic digital elevation models was funded by the sponsors of the PALEOMAP project. This work is part of the PhanTASTIC project led by Scott Wing and Brian Huber from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and was initiated at a workshop supported by Roland and Debra Sauer-mann. This work was carried out using the computational facilities of the Advanced Computing Research Centre, University of Bristol (, last access: 30 June 2021).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Author(s).


Dive into the research topics of 'Deep ocean temperatures through time'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this