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Warm oceans helped first human migration from Asia to North America

View of the Earth from space

New research reveals significant changes to the circulation of the North Pacific and its impact on the initial migration of humans from Asia to North America.

The new international study, led by the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of St Andrews and published in Science Advances (Wednesday 9 December), provides a new picture of the circulation and climate of the North Pacific at the end of the last ice age with implications for early human migration.

The Pacific Ocean contains around half the water in Earth’s oceans and is a vast reservoir of heat and CO2. However, at present, the sluggish circulation of the North Pacific restricts this heat and CO2’s movement, limiting its impact on climate.

The international team of scientists used sediment cores from the deep sea to reconstruct the circulation and climate of the North Pacific during the peak of the last ice age. Their results reveal a dramatically different circulation in the ice age Pacific, with vigorous ocean currents creating a relatively warm region around the modern Bering Sea.

“Our data shows that the Pacific had a warm current system during the last ice age, similar to the modern Atlantic Ocean currents that help to support a mild climate in Northern Europe,” said Dr James Rae, from the University of St Andrews who led the study.

The warming from these ocean currents created conditions more favourable for early human habitation, helping address a long-standing mystery about the earliest inhabitants of North America.

“According to genetic studies, the first people to populate the Americas lived in an isolated population for several thousand years during the peak of the last ice age, before spreading out into the American continents,” said Professor Ben Fitzhugh, an anthropologist at the University of Washington and co-author of the study.

This has been termed the ‘Beringian Standstill’ hypothesis and a significant question is where this population lived after separation from their Asian relatives before deglaciation allowed them to reach and spread throughout North and South America. The new research suggests that these early Americans may have lived in a relatively warm refugium in southern Beringia, on the now submerged land beneath the Bering Sea. Due to the extremely cold climate that dominated other parts of this region during the ice age, it has been unclear, until now, how habitable conditions could have been maintained.

“The warm currents revealed by our data would have created a much more pleasant climate in this region than we might have previously thought,” said Dr Will Gray of the LSCE institute in France.

“This would have created milder climates in the coastal regions of the North Pacific that would have supported more temperate terrestrial and marine ecosystems and made it possible for humans to survive the ice age in an otherwise harsh climatic period.”

“Our work shows how dynamic Earth’s climate system is. Changes in the circulation of the ocean and atmosphere can have major impacts on how effectively humans may inhabit different environments, which is also relevant for understanding how different regions will be affected by future climate change,” added Dr Robb Jnglin Wills of the University of Washington.


Photo caption: The Pacific Ocean’s currents support a diverse ecosystem, seen here from space with green indicating blooms of photosynthesising plankton. Warmer currents during the ice age may also have supported early human settlements.

The paper Overturning circulation, nutrient limitation, and warming in the Glacial North Pacific is published in Science Advances and is available online.

Please ensure that the paper’s DOI 10.1126/sciadv.abd1654 is included in all online stories and social media posts and that Science Advances is credited as the source.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.

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