The Closure History of the Central American Seaway and its Relationship to Ocean Circulation and Climate
Abstract:Paleoceanographic and ecologic studies suggest that gradual shoaling of the Central American Seaway (CAS) as the Isthmus of Panama rose between ~13 to 2 Ma caused a stepwise shutdown of deep, intermediate, and shallow Pacific water flow through the seaway into the Caribbean. This diminishing communication is thought to have significantly influenced surface currents, ocean circulation at depth, and ultimately regional and global climate. However, new studies of Panama’s volcanic/tectonic history suggest the isthmus rose much earlier than previous estimates, calling into question many of our accepted implications for this gateway event under the ‘Panama Hypothesis,’ including strengthened thermohaline circulation, North Atlantic Deep Water production, increased North Atlantic temperature, and ties to Northern Hemisphere glaciation. Despite considerable research, few paleoceanographic studies have directly examined the possibility of earlier events in the closure history of the CAS and thus the precise linkages and timing are not well defined.
To investigate early restricted CAS flow related to sill formation or pulsed exhumation events, we examine two sets of independent paleoceanographic reconstructions from Ocean Drilling Program sediment cores from the region. We assess the presence of Pacific waters within the Caribbean over the last 30 Ma via the Nd-isotopic composition of fish teeth from several Caribbean sites; these records point to sustained transport of Pacific waters into the Caribbean from at least 30 to 10 Ma. Further, alkenone-derived sea surface temperature (SST) reconstructions from the Eastern Equatorial Pacific (EEP) indicate the presence of consistently warm (>27 °C) waters in the EEP from ~12 to ~5 Ma, after which time SSTs at sites within the modern cold tongue begin to cool appreciably. The SST data imply that the EEP cold tongue, which some studies suggest is linked in part to the rise of the Panamanian isthmus, did not develop until after 5 Ma. Collectively, these paleoceanographic reconstructions and model outputs indicate notable communication of water between the Pacific and the Caribbean until at least 10 Ma and provide improved understanding of the sequence of events associated with the rise of the Isthmus of Panama and closure of the CAS.