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Concept: Continental shelf


Coinciding with global warming, Arctic sea ice has rapidly decreased during the last four decades and climate scenarios suggest that sea ice may completely disappear during summer within the next about 50-100 years. Here we produce Arctic sea ice biomarker proxy records for the penultimate glacial (Marine Isotope Stage 6) and the subsequent last interglacial (Marine Isotope Stage 5e). The latter is a time interval when the high latitudes were significantly warmer than today. We document that even under such warmer climate conditions, sea ice existed in the central Arctic Ocean during summer, whereas sea ice was significantly reduced along the Barents Sea continental margin influenced by Atlantic Water inflow. Our proxy reconstruction of the last interglacial sea ice cover is supported by climate simulations, although some proxy data/model inconsistencies still exist. During late Marine Isotope Stage 6, polynya-type conditions occurred off the major ice sheets along the northern Barents and East Siberian continental margins, contradicting a giant Marine Isotope Stage 6 ice shelf that covered the entire Arctic Ocean.Coinciding with global warming, Arctic sea ice has rapidly decreased during the last four decades. Here, using biomarker records, the authors show that permanent sea ice was still present in the central Arctic Ocean during the last interglacial, when high latitudes were warmer than present.

Concepts: Earth, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Antarctica, Continental shelf, Sea ice


The stability of modern ice shelves is threatened by atmospheric and oceanic warming. The geologic record of formerly glaciated continental shelves provides a window into the past of how ice shelves responded to a warming climate. Fields of deep (-560 m), linear iceberg furrows on the outer, western Ross Sea continental shelf record an early post-Last Glacial Maximum episode of ice-shelf collapse that was followed by continuous retreat of the grounding line for ∼200 km. Runaway grounding line conditions culminated once the ice became pinned on shallow banks in the western Ross Sea. This early episode of ice-shelf collapse is not observed in the eastern Ross Sea, where more episodic grounding line retreat took place. More widespread (∼280,000 km(2)) retreat of the ancestral Ross Ice Shelf occurred during the late Holocene. This event is recorded in sediment cores by a shift from terrigenous glacimarine mud to diatomaceous open-marine sediment as well as an increase in radiogenic beryllium ((10)Be) concentrations. The timing of ice-shelf breakup is constrained by compound specific radiocarbon ages, the first application of this technique systematically applied to Antarctic marine sediments. Breakup initiated around 5 ka, with the ice shelf reaching its current configuration ∼1.5 ka. In the eastern Ross Sea, the ice shelf retreated up to 100 km in about a thousand years. Three-dimensional thermodynamic ice-shelf/ocean modeling results and comparison with ice-core records indicate that ice-shelf breakup resulted from combined atmospheric warming and warm ocean currents impinging onto the continental shelf.

Concepts: Sediment, Glacier, Antarctica, Ice shelf, Continental shelf, Ross Ice Shelf, Iceberg, Terrigenous


Microplastics are widely dispersed throughout the marine environment. An understanding of the distribution and accumulation of this form of pollution is crucial for gauging environmental risk. Presented here is the first record of plastic contamination, in the 5 mm-250 μm size range, of Irish continental shelf sediments. Sixty-two microplastics were recovered from 10 of 11 stations using box cores. 97% of recovered microplastics were found to reside shallower than 2.5 cm sediment depth, with the area of highest microplastic concentration being the water-sediment interface and top 0.5 cm of sediments (66%). Microplastics were not found deeper than 3.5 ± 0.5 cm. These findings demonstrate that microplastic contamination is ubiquitous within superficial sediments and bottom water along the western Irish continental shelf. Results highlight that cores need to be at least 4-5 cm deep to quantify the standing stock of microplastics within marine sediments. All recovered microplastics were classified as secondary microplastics as they appear to be remnants of larger items; fibres being the principal form of microplastic pollution (85%), followed by broken fragments (15%). The range of polymer types, colours and physical forms recovered suggests a variety of sources. Further research is needed to understand the mechanisms influencing microplastic transport, deposition, resuspension and subsequent interactions with biota.

Concepts: Continent, Sediment, Oceanography, Polymer, Sedimentary rock, Sediment transport, Continental shelf, John Cena


Demands on the resources of the deep-sea have increased in recent years. Consequently, the need to create and implement a comprehensive network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to help manage and protect these resources has become a global political priority. Efforts are currently underway to implement MPA networks in the deep North East Atlantic. To ensure these networks are effective, it is essential that baseline information be available to inform the conservation planning process. Using empirical data, we calculated conservation targets for sessile benthic invertebrates in the deep North East Atlantic for consideration during the planning process. We assessed Species-Area Relationships across two depth bands (200-1100 m and 1100-1800 m) and nine substrata. Conservation targets were predicted for each substratum within each depth band using z-values obtained from fitting a power model to the Species-Area Relationships of observed and estimated species richness (Chao1). Results suggest an MPA network incorporating 10% of the North East Atlantic’s deep-sea area would protect approximately 58% and 49% of sessile benthic species for the depth bands 200-1100 m and 1100-1800 m, respectively. Species richness was shown to vary with substratum type indicating that, along with depth, substratum information needs to be incorporated into the conservation planning process to ensure the most effective MPA network is implemented in the deep North East Atlantic.

Concepts: Scientific method, Species, Atlantic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Europe, Ocean, North, Continental shelf


Sea surface temperature imagery, satellite altimetry, and a surface drifter track reveal an unusual tilt in the Gulf Stream path that brought the Gulf Stream to 39.9°N near the Middle Atlantic Bight shelfbreak–200 km north of its mean position–in October 2011, while a large meander brought Gulf Stream water within 12 km of the shelfbreak in December 2011. Near-bottom temperature measurements from lobster traps on the outer continental shelf south of New England show distinct warming events (temperature increases exceeding 6°C) in November and December 2011. Moored profiler measurements over the continental slope show high salinities and temperatures, suggesting that the warm water on the continental shelf originated in the Gulf Stream. The combination of unusual water properties over the shelf and slope in late fall and the subsequent mild winter may affect seasonal stratification and habitat selection for marine life over the continental shelf in 2012.

Concepts: Oceanography, Atlantic Ocean, Heat, Europe, Stream, Arctic Ocean, Gulf Stream, Continental shelf


Continental Shelf Waves (CSWs) are oscillatory phenomena migrating along the continental margins, controlled by the interplay of rotation and bathymetric gradients. Here we combine observational data from five moored current meters and high-resolution hydrodynamic model fields for describing the generation and propagation of CSWs along the Southern Adriatic Margin (SAM, eastern Mediterranean Sea), where the possibility of their occurrence has been theoretically hypothesised but not experimentally observed up to now. Results show that in spring 2012 a train of CSWs with 35-87 km wavelength and 2-4 day period was generated on the northern sectors of the SAM and propagated southwards along its western slope. Along their path, CSWs modify their apparent frequency and oscillation mode as an effect of the background current and scattering caused by changes in the continental margin morphology. This signal appears as a persistent feature triggered by the inflow of a dense water vein formed in the northern Adriatic Sea, propagating upwelling and downwelling patterns along broad sectors of the continental slope. CSWs thus appear as an additional remote-controlled mechanism for cross-shelf exchange of water, sediment and nutrients in the SAM, besides the well-acknowledged dense water downflow along preferential pathways driven by local topographic constraints.

Concepts: Oceanography, Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, Oscillation, Hypothesis, Albania, Continental shelf, Continental margin


The flow of terrestrial carbon to rivers and inland waters is a major term in the global carbon cycle. The organic fraction of this flux may be buried, remineralized or ultimately stored in the deep ocean. The latter can only occur if terrestrial organic carbon can pass through the coastal and estuarine filter, a process of unknown efficiency. Here, data are presented on the spatial distribution of terrestrial fluorescent and chromophoric dissolved organic matter (FDOM and CDOM, respectively) throughout the North Sea, which receives organic matter from multiple distinct sources. We use FDOM and CDOM as proxies for terrestrial dissolved organic matter (tDOM) to test the hypothesis that tDOM is quantitatively transferred through the North Sea to the open North Atlantic Ocean. Excitation emission matrix fluorescence and parallel factor analysis (EEM-PARAFAC) revealed a single terrestrial humic-like class of compounds whose distribution was restricted to the coastal margins and, via an inverse salinity relationship, to major riverine inputs. Two distinct sources of fluorescent humic-like material were observed associated with the combined outflows of the Rhine, Weser and Elbe rivers in the south-eastern North Sea and the Baltic Sea outflow to the eastern central North Sea. The flux of tDOM from the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean appears insignificant, although tDOM export may occur through Norwegian coastal waters unsampled in our study. Our analysis suggests that the bulk of tDOM exported from the Northwest European and Scandinavian landmasses is buried or remineralized internally, with potential losses to the atmosphere. This interpretation implies that the residence time in estuarine and coastal systems exerts an important control over the fate of tDOM and needs to be considered when evaluating the role of terrestrial carbon losses in the global carbon cycle.

Concepts: Water, Atlantic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Europe, Ocean, North Sea, English Channel, Continental shelf


The end-Triassic mass extinction overlapped with the eruption of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), and release of CO2 and other volcanic volatiles has been implicated in the extinction. However, the timing of marine biotic recovery versus CAMP eruptions remains uncertain. Here we use Hg concentrations and isotopes as indicators of CAMP volcanism in continental shelf sediments, the primary archive of faunal data. In Triassic-Jurassic strata, Muller Canyon, Nevada, Hg levels rise in the extinction interval, peak before the appearance of the first Jurassic ammonite, remain above background in association with a depauperate fauna, and fall to pre-extinction levels during significant pelagic and benthic faunal recovery. Hg isotopes display no significant mass independent fractionation within the extinction and depauperate intervals, consistent with a volcanic origin for the Hg. The Hg and palaeontological evidence from the same archive indicate that significant biotic recovery did not begin until CAMP eruptions ceased.

Concepts: Earth, United States, Atlantic Ocean, Cretaceous, Volcano, Dinosaur, American record labels, Continental shelf


When continents break apart, continental crust and lithosphere are thinned until break-up is achieved and an oceanic basin is formed. The most remarkable and least understood structures associated with this process are up to 200 km wide areas of hyper-extended continental crust, which are partitioned between conjugate margins with pronounced asymmetry. Here we show, using high-resolution thermo-mechanical modelling, that hyper-extended crust and margin asymmetry are produced by steady state rift migration. We demonstrate that rift migration is accomplished by sequential, oceanward-younging, upper crustal faults, and is balanced through lower crustal flow. Constraining our model with a new South Atlantic plate reconstruction, we demonstrate that larger extension velocities may account for southward increasing width and asymmetry of these conjugate magma-poor margins. Our model challenges conventional ideas of rifted margin evolution, as it implies that during rift migration large amounts of material are transferred from one side of the rift zone to the other.

Concepts: Continent, Earth, United States, Plate tectonics, Europe, Southern United States, Structure of the Earth, Continental shelf


In the 1960s, geology was transformed by the paradigm of plate tectonics. The 1965 paper of Bullard, Everett and Smith was a linking transition between the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics. They showed, conclusively, that the continents around the Atlantic were once contiguous and that the Atlantic Ocean had grown at rates of a few centimetres per year since the Early Jurassic, about 160 Ma. They achieved fits of the continental margins at the 500 fathom line (approx. 900 m), not the shorelines, by minimizing misfits between conjugate margins and finding axes, poles and angles of rotation, using Euler’s theorem, that defined the unique single finite difference rotation that carried congruent continents from contiguity to their present positions, recognizing that the real motion may have been more complex around a number of finite motion poles. Critically, they were concerned only with kinematic reality and were not restricted by considerations of the mechanism by which continents split and oceans grow. Many of the defining features of plate tectonics were explicit or implicit in their reconstructions, such as the torsional rigidity of continents, Euler’s theorem, closure of the Tethyan ocean(s), major continental margin shear zones, the rapid rotation of small continental blocks (Iberia) around nearby poles, the consequent opening of small wedge-shaped oceans (Bay of Biscay), and misfit overlaps (deltas and volcanic piles) and underlaps (stretched continental edges). This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Ocean, Bay of Biscay, Continental shelf, Pangaea