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Press Release - Early Drake Passage Opening Led to Global Change

Issue date: 30 Aug 2005
Number: 12/2005

New results shed light on how Antarctica became the icy, barren continent that we know today. British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists have discovered that 30-50 million years ago, South America and Antarctica split apart very rapidly. This formed the Drake Passage and resulted in a major global cooling. The findings are published in the latest issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Lead Author Dr Roy Livermore says ‘we deciphered the remarkable ‘herringbone’ pattern of ridges that were etched into the Earth’s crust beneath the remote Weddell Sea when South America moved away from Antarctica. This revealed that the two continents separated extremely quickly in geological time forming a shallow ‘gateway’ between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. We estimate that this happened some ten to twenty million years earlier than the previous oldest estimate. Even a shallow (less than 1000 metres) gateway would have had a profound effect on Southern Ocean circulation and subsequently climate".

Such a gateway, by completing a circuit of water around Antarctica, eventually led to the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the world’s largest deep current which now transports some 130 million cubic metres of water through the Drake Passage every second. The effect was to cut Antarctica off from warm southward flowing currents leaving it frozen and desolate.

This new research reinforces findings from deep-sea sediments cores taken from the Southern Ocean and supports the theory that the opening of the Drake Passage could have triggered the abrupt global cooling event and extensive growth of the Antarctic ice sheet 33-34 million years ago.

ENDS

Issued by the British Antarctic Survey Press Office.

Amanda Lynnes - tel: +44 1223 221414, mob:07740 822229, email: a.lynnes@bas.ac.uk

Linda Capper - tel: +44 1223 221448, mob: 07714 233744, email: l.capper@bas.ac.uk

Author Contact: Dr Roy Livermore - tel: +44 1223 221572


NOTES TO EDITORS:

Paleogene opening of Drake Passage by Roy Livermore, Adrian Nankivell, Graeme Eagles and Peter Morris is published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Volume 236, pages 459-470.

British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in research into global issues in an Antarctic context. It is the UK’s national operator and is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. It has an annual budget of around £40 million, runs nine research programmes and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica.

Pictures: Pictures of ice sheets, sea-ice and general Antarctic scenery are available from the BAS Press Office as above.