Climate Dynamics

, Volume 43, Issue 1–2, pp 37–52 | Cite as

Coupled climate impacts of the Drake Passage and the Panama Seaway



Tectonically-active gateways between ocean basins have modified ocean circulation over Earth history. Today, the Atlantic and Pacific are directly connected via the Drake Passage, which forms a barrier to the time-mean geostrophic transport between the subtropics and Antarctica. In contrast, during the warm early Cenozoic era, when Antarctica was ice-free, the Drake Passage was closed. Instead, at that time, the separation of North and South America provided a tropical seaway between the Atlantic and Pacific that remained open until the Isthmus of Panama formed in the relatively recent geological past. Ocean circulation models have previously been used to explore the individual impacts of the Drake Passage and the Panama Seaway, but rarely have the two gateways been considered together, and most explorations have used very simple atmospheric models. Here we use a coupled ocean–ice–atmosphere model (GFDL’s CM2Mc), to simulate the impacts of a closed Drake Passage both with and without a Panama Seaway. We find that the climate response to a closed Drake Passage is relatively small when the Panama Seaway is absent, similar to prior studies, although the coupling to a dynamical atmosphere does increase the temperature change. However, with a Panama Seaway, closing Drake Passage has a much larger effect, due to the cessation of deep water formation in the northern hemisphere. Both gateways alter the transport of salt by ocean circulation, with the Panama Seaway allowing fresh Pacific water to be imported to the North Atlantic, and the Drake Passage preventing the flow of saline subtropical water to the circum-Antarctic, a flow that is particularly strong when the Panama Seaway is open. Thus, with a Panama Seaway and a closed Drake Passage, the Southern Ocean tends to be relatively salty, while the North Atlantic tends to be relatively fresh, such that the deep ocean is ventilated from the circum-Antarctic. Ensuing changes in the ocean heat transport drive a bi-polar shift of surface ocean temperatures, and the Intertropical Convergence Zone migrates toward the warmer southern hemisphere. The response of clouds to changes in surface ocean temperatures amplifies the climate response, resulting in temperature changes of up to 9 °C over Antarctica, even in the absence of land-ice feedbacks. These results emphasize the importance of tectonic gateways to the climate history of the Cenozoic, and support a role for ocean circulation changes in the glaciation of Antarctica.


Eocene–Oligocene transition Drake Passage Panama Seaway Gateway Antarctic Circumpolar Current Ocean circulation Heat transport Paleoclimate 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Earth and Planetary SciencesMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  2. 2.Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic SciencesMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  3. 3.Department of Environmental Systems ScienceETH Zurich, Universitätstr. 16ZurichSwitzerland

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