Articles | Volume 13, issue 4
Research article
07 Apr 2017
Research article |  | 07 Apr 2017

Freshening of the Labrador Sea as a trigger for Little Ice Age development

Montserrat Alonso-Garcia, Helga (Kikki) F. Kleiven, Jerry F. McManus, Paola Moffa-Sanchez, Wallace S. Broecker, and Benjamin P. Flower

Abstract. Arctic freshwater discharges to the Labrador Sea from melting glaciers and sea ice can have a large impact on ocean circulation dynamics in the North Atlantic, modifying climate and deep water formation in this region. In this study, we present for the first time a high resolution record of ice rafting in the Labrador Sea over the last millennium to assess the effects of freshwater discharges in this region on ocean circulation and climate. The occurrence of ice-rafted debris (IRD) in the Labrador Sea was studied using sediments from Site GS06-144-03 (57.29° N, 48.37° W; 3432 m water depth). IRD from the fraction 63–150 µm shows particularly high concentrations during the intervals  ∼  AD 1000–1100,  ∼  1150–1250,  ∼  1400–1450,  ∼  1650–1700 and  ∼  1750–1800. The first two intervals occurred during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), whereas the others took place within the Little Ice Age (LIA). Mineralogical identification indicates that the main IRD source during the MCA was SE Greenland. In contrast, the concentration and relative abundance of hematite-stained grains reflects an increase in the contribution of Arctic ice during the LIA.

The comparison of our Labrador Sea IRD records with other climate proxies from the subpolar North Atlantic allowed us to propose a sequence of processes that led to the cooling that occurred during the LIA, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. This study reveals that the warm climate of the MCA may have enhanced iceberg calving along the SE Greenland coast and, as a result, freshened the subpolar gyre (SPG). Consequently, SPG circulation switched to a weaker mode and reduced convection in the Labrador Sea, decreasing its contribution to the North Atlantic deep water formation and, thus, reducing the amount of heat transported to high latitudes. This situation of weak SPG circulation may have made the North Atlantic climate more unstable, inducing a state in which external forcings (e.g. reduced solar irradiance and volcanic eruptions) could easily drive periods of severe cold conditions in Europe and the North Atlantic like the LIA. This analysis indicates that a freshening of the SPG may play a crucial role in the development of cold events during the Holocene, which may be of key importance for predictions about future climate.

Short summary
This study focuses on understanding climatic and oceanographic variations that took place during the last 1000 years. We studied sediment samples from the Labrador Sea, looking for evidence of events of freshwater and iceberg discharges to this region. The importance of this study is to evaluate when these events happened and their consequences. The freshening of the Labrador Sea region may have played a major role in promoting cooling during the 15th to 19th centuries.