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.
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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. More information about the work of the Survey can be found on our website: www.antarctica.ac.uk
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