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I. Nicholas McCave

I. Nicholas McCave

Emeritus Professor

Climate Change and Earth-Ocean-Atmosphere Systems


Office Phone: +44 (0) 1223 333422

Research Interests

The Sediment Record of the Deep-Sea Circulation

Core slabbing on EN539

Slicing multicore at 0.5 cm intervals (<10 years per slice) south of Iceland May 2014, RV Endevour.

My research aims to understand how the modern deep ocean circulation shapes the sea bed and controls the distribution of sediment types, grain-sizes and bedforms. I then apply that understanding to interpretation of the geological record of the changing deep-sea circulation in piston and gravity cores for the late Pleistocene, and Ocean Drilling Project cores for the Neogene and earlier Pleistocene. Insight developed over the last 30 years concerning mechanics of fine sediment erosion, transport, aggregation and deposition shows that sediments become more cohesive, and all form aggregates, below 10 µm grainsize, but above that size they increasingly behave non-cohesively and are sorted by prevailing currents. This 'sortable silt' (10-63 µm) has a mean size that provides a proxy for depositional current speed and allows insight into changes in deep circulation vigour.

The deeper objective is to understand the impact of climate change on the deep sea (and vice versa). Part of the meridional heat flux on earth is carried by warm surface ocean currents with a corresponding cold deep return flow. We look for good monitoring points for these deep flows and have studied the inflow to the North Atlantic south of Iceland, and the deep inflows to the Pacific east of New Zealand and Indian ocean east of Madagascar. Among our recent striking results are the discovery of a Holocene ~1500 year variability in the flow south of Iceland, matching the Mediaeval Warm Period - Little Ice Age climate changes, flow changes at the inception of the Antarctic circum-polar current, and Southern Ocean control of flow in the glacial deep N. Atlantic.

 Fig 8 erosion colour b

Hypothetical variation of deposition rate with flow speed. The 20 cm/ka maximum is arbitrary (from McCave and Hall, G3, 2006).

SS normalised calibration data

Normalised sortable silt mean size versus normalised mean flow speed U; Sensitivity is 1.36 ± 0.19 cm s-1/μm which allows us to specify the magnitude of flow speed changes on climatic transitions from millions to a few tens of years ago.

Key Publications

McCave I.N., 2018. Nepheloid layers, in; Encyclopedia of Ocean Sciences, 3rd Edition (ed. J. K. Cochran et al.) and Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, Elsevier.

McCave, I.N., Thornalley, D.J.R., & Hall, I.R., 2017. Relation of sortable silt grain size to deep-sea current speeds: Calibration of the ‘Mud Current Meter’ Deep-Sea Research Part I, 127, 1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.dsr.2017.07.003

Roberts, J., I.N. McCave, E.L. McClymont, S. Kender, C.-D. Hillenbrand, R. Matano, D.A. Hodell, and V.L. Peck,  2017. Deglacial changes in flow and frontal structure through the Drake Passage. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 474, 397-408. doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2017.07.004

McCave, I.N., 2017. Formation of sediment waves by turbidity currents and geostrophic flows: A discussion. Marine Geology, 390, 89-93. doi: 10.1016/j.margeo.2017.05.003

Parnell-Turner, R.,  N. White, I.N. McCave, T. Henstock, B. Murton, & S. Jones, 2015. Architecture of contourite drifts modified by transient circulation of the Icelandic mantle plume. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 16 (10), 3414-3435,

Hoogakker, B.A.A., Schmiedel, G., Elderfield, H., McCave, I.N. & Rickaby, R.E.M., 2015. Glacial-interglacial changes in bottom water oxygen content on the Portuguese margin. Nature Geoscience, 8, 40-43.

McCave, I.N., Crowhurst, S.C., Kuhn, G., Hillenbrand, C.-D. & Meredith, M.P., 2014.   Minimal change in Antarctic Circumpolar Current flow speed between the last Glacial and Holocene.  Nature Geoscience, 7, 113-116.  doi:10.1038/ngeo2037.

Roberts, N.L., McManus, J.F., Piotrowski, A.M. & McCave, I.N., 2014.  Advection and scavenging controls of Pa/Th in the northern NE Atlantic.  Paleoceanography, 20, 668-679,  doi: 10.1002/2014PA0026332015

Elderfield, H., Ferretti, P., Greaves, M., Crowhurst, S.J., McCave, I.N., Hodell, D.A. & Piotrowski, A., 2012. Evolution of deep ocean temperature and ice volume through the Mid Pleistocene climate transition. Science, 337, 704-709.

Thornalley, D.J.R., M. Blaschek, F.J. Davies, S. Praetorius, D.W. Oppo, J.F. McManus, I.R. Hall, H. Kleiven, H. Renssen & I.N. McCave, 2013. Long-term variations in Iceland-Scotland overflow strength during the Holocene. Climate of the Past, 9, 2073–2084,

McCave, I.N. & Elderfield, H.,  2011. Sir Nicholas John Shackleton. 23 June 1937 -- 24 January 2006. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society,  57, 435-462.   doi: 10.1098/rsbm.2011.0005. Bibliography; /content/suppl/2011/06/24/rsbm.2011.0005.DC1/rsbm20110005supp1.pdf

Kleiven, H.F., Hall, I.R., McCave, I.N., Knorr, G., & Jansen, E., 2011. Deep-water formation and climate change in the North Atlantic during the Mid-Pleistocene. Geology, 39, 343–346; doi: 10.1130/G31651.1, supp.inf.

Thornalley, D.J.R., S. Barker, W.S. Broecker, H. Elderfield & I.N. McCave,  2011. The deglacial evolution of North Atlantic deep convection.  Science, 331, 202-205.

Thornalley, D.J.R., Elderfield H., & McCave I.N., 2009. Holocene oscillations in the temperature and salinity of the surface subpolar North Atlantic.  Nature, 457, 711-4.


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