A Dynamical Framework for Interpreting Ancient Sea Surface Temperatures

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25 Scopus citations


Efforts to estimate past global mean temperature and latitudinal gradients must contend with spatial heterogeneity in sea surface temperatures (SSTs). Here, we use modern SSTs to show that the environments from which most paleoclimatic data are drawn, shallow epeiric seas and continental margins, are systematically offset from zonal mean temperatures. Epeiric seas are warmer and more seasonal than open-ocean values from the same latitudes, while continental margins exhibit consistent and predictable deviations related to gyre circulation. Warm temperatures inferred from Paleozoic proxy data may largely reflect that these data derive almost entirely from epeiric seas. Moreover, pseudoproxy analysis using Paleogene sampling localities demonstrates how undersampling of the full range of dynamical environments associated with gyre circulation can generate spurious estimates of latitudinal temperature gradients. Recognition of these global patterns permits a predictive framework within which to more robustly interpret proxy data, improve Earth system models, and reconstruct ancient dynamic regimes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020GL089044
JournalGeophysical Research Letters
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 16 2020


  • Cenozoic
  • Paleozoic
  • paleoceanography
  • paleoclimate
  • proxy data
  • sea surface temperature

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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