Marine Isotope Stages

Building A Paleoclimatic History of the World

Microscopic image of Calcareous phytoplankton
Science Photo Library / STEVE GSCHMEISSNER / Getty Images

Marine Isotope Stages (abbreviated MIS), sometimes referred to as Oxygen Isotope Stages (OIS), are the discovered pieces of a chronological listing of alternating cold and warm periods on our planet, going back to at least 2.6 million years. Developed by successive and collaborative work by pioneer paleoclimatologists Harold Urey, Cesare Emiliani, John Imbrie, Nicholas Shackleton, and a host of others, MIS uses the balance of oxygen isotopes in stacked fossil plankton (foraminifera) deposits on the bottom of the oceans to build an environmental history of our planet.

The changing oxygen isotope ratios hold information about the presence of ice sheets, and thus planetary climate changes, on our earth's surface.

How Measuring Marine Isotope Stages Work

Scientists take sediment cores from the bottom of the ocean all over the world and then measure the ratio of Oxygen 16 to Oxygen 18 in the calcite shells of the foraminifera. Oxygen 16 is preferentially evaporated from the oceans, some of which falls as snow on continents. Times when snow and glacial ice buildup occur therefore see a corresponding enrichment of the oceans in Oxygen 18. Thus the O18/O16 ratio changes over time, mostly as a function of the volume of glacial ice on the planet.

Supporting evidence for the use of oxygen isotope ratios as proxies of climate change is reflected in the matching record of what scientists believe the reason for the changing amount of glacier ice on our planet. The primary reasons glacial ice varies on our planet was described by Serbian geophysicist and astronomer Milutin Milankovic (or Milankovitch) as the combination of the eccentricity of Earth's orbit around the sun, the tilt of the Earth's axis and the wobble of the planet bringing the northern latitudes nearer to or farther from the sun's orbit, all of which changes the distribution of incoming solar radiation to the planet.

Sorting Out Competing Factors

The problem is, however, that although scientists have been able to identify an extensive record of global ice volume changes through time, the exact amount of sea level rise, or temperature decline, or even ice volume, is not generally available through measurements of isotope balance, because these different factors are interrelated.

However, sea level changes can sometimes be identified directly in the geological record: for example, datable cave encrustations which develop at sea levels (see Dorale and colleagues). This type of additional evidence ultimately helps sorts out the competing factors in establishing a more rigorous estimation of past temperature, sea level, or the amount of ice on the planet.

Climate Change on Earth

The following table lists a paleo-chronology of life on earth, including how the major cultural steps fit in, for the past 1 million years. Scholars have taken the MIS/OIS listing well beyond that.

Table of Marine Isotope Stages

MIS StageStart DateCooler or WarmerCultural Events
MIS 111,600warmerthe Holocene
MIS 224,000coolerlast glacial maximum, Americas populated
MIS 360,000warmerupper Paleolithic begins; Australia populated, upper Paleolithic cave walls painted, Neanderthals disappear
MIS 474,000coolerMt. Toba super-eruption
MIS 5130,000warmerearly modern humans (EMH) leave Africa to colonize the world
MIS 5a85,000warmerHowieson's Poort/Still Bay complexes in southern Africa
MIS 5b93,000cooler 
MIS 5c106,000warmerEMH at Skuhl and Qazfeh in Israel
MIS 5d115,000cooler 
MIS 5e130,000warmer 
MIS 6190,000coolerMiddle Paleolithic begins, EMH evolves, at Bouri and Omo Kibish in Ethiopia
MIS 7244,000warmer 
MIS 8301,000cooler 
MIS 9334,000warmer 
MIS 10364,000coolerHomo erectus at Diring Yuriahk in Siberia
MIS 11427,000warmerNeanderthals evolve in Europe. This stage is thought to be the most similar to MIS 1
MIS 12474,000cooler 
MIS 13528,000warmer 
MIS 14568,000cooler 
MIS 15621,000ccooler 
MIS 16659,000cooler 
MIS 17712,000warmerH. erectus at Zhoukoudian in China
MIS 18760,000cooler 
MIS 19787,000warmer 
MIS 20810,000coolerH. erectus at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel
MIS 21865,000warmer 
MIS 221,030,000cooler 



Jeffrey Dorale of the University of Iowa.

Alexanderson H, Johnsen T, and Murray AS. 2010. Re-dating the Pilgrimstad Interstadial with OSL: a warmer climate and a smaller ice sheet during the Swedish Middle Weichselian (MIS 3)? Boreas 39(2):367-376.

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Hodgson DA, Verleyen E, Squier AH, Sabbe K, Keely BJ, Saunders KM, and Vyverman W. 2006. Interglacial environments of coastal east Antarctica: comparison of MIS 1 (Holocene) and MIS 5e (Last Interglacial) lake-sediment records. Quaternary Science Reviews 25(1–2):179-197.

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Kaiser J, and Lamy F. 2010. Links between Patagonian Ice Sheet fluctuations and Antarctic dust variability during the last glacial period (MIS 4-2). Quaternary Science Reviews 29(11–12):1464-1471.

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