Paleoclimates, ocean depth, and the oxygen isotopic composition of seawater

James F. Kasting, M. Tazewell Howard, Klaus Wallmann, Ján Veizer, Graham Shields, Jasmine Jaffrés

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

189 Citations (SciVal)


A recurrent interpretation of ancient climate based on the oxygen isotopic composition of marine carbonates and cherts suggests that Earth's climate was substantially warmer in the distant past and remained so until as recently as 400 Myr ago. This interpretation is difficult to reconcile with the long-term glacial record, with evidence for modest weathering rates during most of Earth's history, with biomarker and fossil evidence for eukaryotes and even vertebrates at times of anomalously low δ18O values, and with the predicted faintness of the young Sun. We argue here, following earlier suggestions, that the low δ18O values in ancient rocks are a consequence of the low δ18O of ancient seawater. A modest increase in ocean depth with time, together with progressive increases in pelagic sedimentation on midocean ridge flanks since about 550 Ma, could account for the variation in seawater isotopic composition. The required change in ocean depth, coupled with thinning of the oceanic crust, is a natural consequence of the decline in heat flow over time. Contrary to previous assertions, such a model is not inconsistent with data from ophiolites. It seems likely that Earth's climate remained largely within Phanerozoic norms throughout the past 3.5 Ga.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)82-93
Number of pages12
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Nov 30 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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