Reduced surface–deep ocean exchange and enhanced nutrient consumption by phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean have been linked to lower glacial atmospheric CO2. However, identification of the biological and physical conditions involved and the related processes remains incomplete. Here we specify Southern Ocean surface–subsurface contrasts using a new tool, the combined oxygen and silicon isotope measurement of diatom and radiolarian opal, in combination with numerical simulations. Our data do not indicate a permanent glacial halocline related to melt water from icebergs.

During glacial periods of the Late Pleistocene, an abundance of proxy data demonstrates the existence of large and repeated millennial-scale warming episodes, known as Dansgaard–Oeschger (DO) events. This ubiquitous feature of rapid glacial climate change can be extended back as far as 800,000 years before present (BP) in the ice core record, and has drawn broad attention within the science and policy-making communities alike. Many studies have been dedicated to investigating the underlying causes of these changes, but no coherent mechanism has yet been identified.