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Poleward and weakened westerlies during Pliocene warmth


The prevailing mid-latitude westerly winds, known as the westerlies, are a fundamental component of the climate system because they have a crucial role in driving surface ocean circulation1 and modulating air–sea heat, momentum and carbon exchange1,2,3. Recent work suggests that westerly wind belts are migrating polewards in response to anthropogenic forcing4,5. Reconstructing the westerlies during past warm periods such as the Pliocene epoch, in which atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) was about 350 to 450 parts per million6 and temperatures were about 2 to 4 degrees Celsius higher than today7, can improve our understanding of changes in the position and strength of these wind systems as the climate continues to warm. Here we show that the westerlies were weaker and more poleward during the warm Pliocene than during glacial periods after the intensification of Northern Hemisphere glaciation (iNHG), which occurred around 2.73 million years ago8. Our results, which are based on dust and export productivity reconstructions, indicate that major ice sheet development during the iNHG was accompanied by substantial increases in dust fluxes in the mid-latitude North Pacific Ocean, especially compared to those in the subarctic North Pacific. Following this shift, changes in dust and productivity largely track the glacial–interglacial cycles of the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene epochs. On the basis of this pattern, we infer that shifts in the westerlies were primarily driven by variations in Plio-Pleistocene thermal gradients and ice volume. By combining this relationship with other dust records9,10,11 and climate modelling results12, we find that the proposed changes in the westerlies were globally synchronous. If the Pliocene is predictive of future warming, we posit that continued poleward movement and weakening of the present-day westerlies in both hemispheres can be expected.

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Fig. 1: Dust flux reconstructions from the Pliocene North Pacific indicate shifts in the westerlies after the iNHG.
Fig. 2: ODP 1208 SST and export productivity records support westerly wind shifts.
Fig. 3: North Pacific, Atlantic and Loess Plateau Plio-Pleistocene dust proxy fluxes display coherent increases at the iNHG.

Data availability

All data produced for this study are available at data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The code used in this study to produce all figures is available at


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We thank F. Pavia, J. Middleton, M. Ting, M. Raymo, J. Schaefer, S. Rahimi, T. Weiss and J. Bridges for discussions that greatly improved the research and manuscript. Support at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory laboratories was provided by R. Schwartz, M. Fleisher, L. Bolge, L. Baker, J. Hansen and C. Chang. ODP 1208 and ODP 885/886 core samples were provided by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). IODP is sponsored by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and participating countries under the management of Joint Oceanographic Institutions, Inc. We acknowledge the NSF-PIRE project (PIRE: DUST) that supported the work through funding to G.W., R.F.A. and T.D.H., and a Climate Center Grant from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

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J.T.A. and G.W. designed the project and developed the conceptual framework. J.T.A. collected all isotope, major and trace element, and opal data; T.D.H. collected alkenone data. J.T.A. and G.W. analysed data. J.T.A. and G.W. wrote the manuscript, and all authors provided comments and revisions.

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Correspondence to Jordan T. Abell.

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Peer review information Nature thanks the anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Modelled dust flux ratios show little zonal dust variability between the LGM and today.

Contours represent the ratio of annual average LGM and modern dust deposition rates to the North Pacific. The model output is from the C4fn and C4fn-lgm simulations of ref. 34.

Extended Data Fig. 2 SST, dust and export productivity records from ODP 1208 for the period ~2.5–4.5 Ma.

a, Benthic oxygen isotope stack from ref. 21 and ODP 1208 from ref. 50. b, Alkenone-derived SSTs. The record is a combination of data produced in this study and those from ref. 45. c, Dust fluxes determined from Th concentrations and 3HeET -derived sediment fluxes. Blue filled circles indicate samples with measured 3HeET. d, C37total fluxes. The record is a combination of data produced in this study and those from ref. 46. e, Baxs fluxes. Purple filled circles indicate samples with measured 3HeET. f, Opal fluxes. Light blue filled circles indicate samples with measured 3HeET. All error bars or ‘clouds’ for dust and export production proxies represent propagated analytical errors on concentrations, as well as analytical and statistical uncertainties for the 3HeET -derived MARs (1σ).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Fractional differences for helium isotope replicates.

a, Frequency of ODP 1208 fractional differences between replicate samples for 3HeET (blue, top) and 4Heterr (red, bottom). b, Same as a, except for ODP 885/886. c, Combined data for both cores. Fractional differences are calculated by dividing the absolute value of the maximum difference between replicates samples (if more than one replicate is run) by the average.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Comparison of 3HeET sediment fluxes and age-model-derived MARs/LSRs.

a, ODP 1208. b, ODP 885/886. Both CFP records use the Quaternary constant flux of 3HeET (0.8 pcc cm-2 kyr-1). Error bars represent propagated uncertainties on analytical and statistical uncertainties for the 3HeET-derived MARs (1σ). The LSRs/MARs for ODP 1208 are based on the age models of refs. 50,53 and dry bulk densities. The higher-resolution MARs between astronomically tuned reversal tie-points for the period of ~3.7–4.5 Ma at site 1208 are calculated using samples for which densities are provided from shipboard measurements. In the later portion of the ODP 1208 record, for which oxygen isotope stratigraphy is available (~2.5–3.7 Ma), densities are interpolated to samples with oxygen isotope data for determination of MARs. LSRs/MARs for ODP 885/886 are based on the age model of ref. 31 and dry bulk densities. The higher-resolution MARs between magnetic reversal stratigraphy tie-points at site 885/886 are calculated using the provided shipboard measurements of density interpolated to sample depths used in this study, which have higher resolution.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Comparison of dust proxy concentrations for ODP 1208 and 885/886.

ad, 4Heterr (a), Al (b), Fe (c) and Ti (d) are plotted against Th for ODP 1208. eh, Same as ad, but for ODP 885/886. Black lines denote the UCC relationships of the elements59,75 (see Methods). All error bars denote analytical uncertainties on measured concentrations (1σ), except for 4Heterr, where the error bars incorporate the additional statistical uncertainty associated with replicates (1σ) (see Methods).

Extended Data Fig. 6 ODP 1208 and 885/886 dust fluxes derived from all five dust proxies used in this study.

a, 4Heterr-derived dust fluxes for ODP 1208. b, Th-derived dust fluxes for ODP 1208. c, Al-derived dust fluxes for ODP 1208. d, Fe-derived dust fluxes for ODP 1208. e, Ti-derived dust fluxes for ODP 1208. fj, Same as ae, but for ODP 885/886. Error bars include propagated analytical uncertainties on concentrations as well as analytical and statistical uncertainties for the 3HeET-derived MARs (1σ). The much lower 4Heterr-derived dust fluxes are probably a result of the large uncertainty in the terrestrial endmember59.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Compilation of dust flux reconstructions from the open-ocean Pliocene North Pacific.

a, LR04 benthic oxygen isotope stack21. b, Th- and 3HeET-derived dust fluxes from ODP 1208. c, Siliciclastic (>2 μm) fluxes from ODP 88278. d, Th- and 3HeET-derived dust flux data from ODP 885/886. e, Aeolian flux from ODP 885/88628. f, Flux of relative Hm+Gt from ODP 885/88679. Error bars for records in this study represent propagated analytical uncertainties on concentrations, as well as analytical and statistical uncertainties for the 3HeET-derived MARs (1σ).

Extended Data Fig. 8 ODP 885/886 dust concentrations and fluxes derived from various methods.

a, Aeolian percentages (grey curve) from ref. 28 are determined using a sequential leaching procedure to removed opal and Fe-Mn (oxy)hydroxides. Dust concentrations from this study are calculated using Th concentrations. Error bars represent analytical uncertainties on element concentration measurements (1σ). b, Aeolian fluxes (black curve) from ref. 28 are based on aeolian percentages and age-model-derived MARs. Dust fluxes from this study are calculated using Th concentrations and 3HeET-derived MARs. Error bars represent propagated analytical uncertainties on concentrations, as well as analytical and statistical uncertainties for the 3HeET-derived MARs (1σ).

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Abell, J.T., Winckler, G., Anderson, R.F. et al. Poleward and weakened westerlies during Pliocene warmth. Nature 589, 70–75 (2021).

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