The Mg isotopic composition of Cenozoic seawater - evidence for a link between Mg-clays, seawater Mg/Ca, and climate

John Andrew Higgins, Daniel P. Schrag

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

132 Scopus citations


Cooling of Earth's climate over the Cenozoic has been accompanied by large changes in the magnesium and calcium content of seawater whose origins remain enigmatic. The processes that control these changes affect the magnesium isotopic composition of seawater, rendering it a useful tool for elucidating the processes that control seawater chemistry on geologic timescales. Here we present a Cenozoic magnesium isotope record of carbonate sediments and use a numerical model of seawater chemistry and the carbon cycle to test hypotheses for the covariation between Cenozoic seawater chemistry and climate. Records are consistent with a 2-3× increase in seawater Mg/Ca and little change in the Mg isotopic composition of seawater. These observations are best explained by a change in the cycling of Mg-silicates. We propose that Mg/Ca changes were caused by a reduction in removal of Mg from seawater in low-temperature marine clays, though an increase in the weathering of Mg-silicates cannot be excluded. We attribute the reduction in the Mg sink in marine clays to changes in ocean temperature, directly linking the major element chemistry of seawater to global climate and providing a novel explanation for the covariation of seawater Mg/Ca and climate over the Cenozoic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)73-81
Number of pages9
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Apr 5 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Cenozoic climate
  • Global carbon cycle
  • Magnesium isotopes
  • Seawater chemistry


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