Paleophysical oceanography is the study of the behavior of the fluid ocean of the past, with a specific emphasis on its climate implications, leading to a focus on the general circulation. Even if the circulation is not of primary concern, heavy reliance on deep-sea cores for past climate information means that knowledge of the oceanic state when the sediments were laid down is a necessity. Like the modern problem, paleoceanography depends heavily on observations, and central difficulties lie with the very limited data types and coverage that are, and perhaps ever will be, available. An approximate separation can be made into static descriptors of the circulation (e.g., its water-mass properties and volumes) and the more difficult problem of determining transport rates of mass and other properties. Determination of the circulation of the Last Glacial Maximum is used to outline some of the main challenges to progress. Apart from sampling issues, major difficulties lie with physical interpretation of the proxies, transferring core depths to an accurate timescale (the “age-model problem”), and understanding the accuracy of time-stepping oceanic or coupled-climate models when run unconstrained by observations. Despite the existence of many plausible explanatory scenarios, few features of the paleocirculation in any period are yet known with certainty.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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