Helen Coxall. Photo: Eva Dalin

Helen Coxall


Visa sidan på svenska
Works at Department of Geological Sciences
Telephone 08-674 78 58
Visiting address Svante Arrheniusväg 8 C, Geohuset
Room R 233
Postal address Institutionen för geologiska vetenskaper 106 91 Stockholm

About me

BSc. Biology/Geology, University of Manchester UK 

Ph.D. Department of Geology, Bristol University UK, Hantkeninid planktonic foraminifera evolution and Eocene palaeoceanographic change

Research fellowships and post doctoral positions

  • Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK, Eocene-Oligocene climate dynamics
  • Postdoctoral researcher, University of Rhode Island, USA, K/Pg boundary and pelagic extinctions
  • Postdoctoral researcher, Smithsonian Institution Department of Paleobiology: Eocene planktonic foraminifera taxonomy and morphometrics
  • Royal Society University Research Fellowship, Oligocene climate dynamics, Cardiff University, UK

Current position: Docent Senior Lecturer in Marine Micropalaeontology, Stockholm University, Department of Geological Sciences 

Helen is interested in the responses of marine systems to climate and environmental change with a focus on extreme events in the last 65 million years when Earth’s climate system was developing to its modern state. To do this she uses geological data from marine sediment cores, aiming to document changes in parameters such as ocean temperature, ice volume, ocean productivity and marine plankton biodiversity using a variety of geological and micropaleontological indicator techniques. She is an expert on living and fossilized foraminifera, microscopic shell-building marine organisms that are abundant in deep-sea sediments. These fossils provide vital information about conditions in the surface layers of the ocean, which are in contact with the atmosphere (planktonic foraminifera), and the deep ocean (benthic foraminifera), recording trends in global ocean circulation.


Undergraduate teaching

  • First year Introduction to Geology and Geophysics: Sedimentology, Earth time, and palaeontology(co-teach)

              Geological excursion to Gotland (leader)

  • Second Year‘Sedimentary Systems’ (co-teach)

              Geological excursion to Västergötland(leader)

  • Third-year course Palaeoceanography and Marine Geology

              Geological excursion to the IODP Core Repository, Bremen (leader)

  • Second year ‘Sedimentary Systems’ (co-teach)

              Bachelors research project in marine geology (projects available!)

Distance learning and Orientation courses

  • Critical Events in the evolution of Earth and life(leader)
  • Snowball Earth(co-teach)

Post graduate-level teaching

  • Isotopes in Geology(co-teach)
  • Urbino Palaeoclimatology summer school, micropalaeontology
  • Masters research project in marine geology (projects available!)


A selection from Stockholm University publication database
  • 2018. Ralf Schiebel (et al.). Revue de Micropaleontologie 61 (3-4), 113-138

    Planktonic foraminifer tests are major archives of environmental change and provide a multitude of proxies in paleoceanography and paleoclimatology. The application of such proxies is contingent upon a collaborative effort to better understand how the living organisms record the properties of their environment and how the resulting signals are recorded in marine sediments. In this contribution, we provide a review of the rapidly developing sub-fields of research, where new advances have been made possibleby technological developments, and by cross-disciplinary work of the scientific community. Following brief historical overviews of the sub-fields, we discuss the latest advances in planktonic foraminifer research and highlight the resulting new perspectives in ocean and climate research. Natural classification based on consistent species concepts forms the basis for analysis of any foraminifer-derived proxy. New approaches in taxonomy and phylogeny of Cenozoic planktonic foraminifers (Section 2) are presented, highlighting new perspectives on sensitivity and response of planktonic foraminifers to the changing climate and environment (Section 4). Calibration of foraminifer-specific data and environmental parameters is improving along with the technical development of probes and the access to samples from the natural environment (Section 3), enhancing our understanding of the ever-changing climate and ocean system. Comprehension of sedimentation and flux dynamics facilitates maximum gain of information from fossil assemblages (Section 5). Subtle changes in the physical (e.g., temperature), chemical (e.g., pH), and biological (e.g., food) conditions of ambient seawater affect the abundance of species and composition of assemblages as well as the chemical composition of the foraminifer shell and provide increasingly-detailed proxy data on paleoenvironments (Section 6).

  • 2018. Natalia Barrientos (et al.). Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 236, 240-259

    We explore the use of Mg/Ca ratios in six Arctic Ocean benthic foraminifera species as bottom water palaeothermometers and expand published Mg/Ca-temperature calibrations to the coldest bottom temperatures (<1 °C). Foraminifera were analyzed in surface sediments at 27 sites in the Chukchi Sea, East Siberian Sea, Laptev Sea, Lomonosov Ridge and Petermann Fjord. The sites span water depths of 52–1157 m and bottom water temperatures (BWT) of −1.8 to +0.9 °C. Benthic foraminifera were alive at time of collection, determined from Rose Bengal (RB) staining. Three infaunal and three epifaunal species were abundant enough for Mg/Ca analysis. As predicted by theory and empirical evidence, cold water Arctic Ocean benthic species produce low Mg/Ca ratios, the exception being the porcelaneous species Quinqueloculina arctica. Our new data provide important constraints at the cold end (<1 °C) when added to existing global datasets. The refined calibrations based on the new and published global data appear best supported for the infaunal species Nonionella labradorica (Mg/Ca = 1.325 ± 0.01 × e^(0.065 ± 0.01 × BWT), r2 = 0.9), Cassidulina neoteretis (Mg/Ca = 1.009 ± 0.02 × e^(0.042 ± 0.01 × BWT), r2 = 0.6) and Elphidium clavatum (Mg/Ca = 0.816 ± 0.06 + 0.125 ± 0.05 × BWT, r2 = 0.4). The latter is based on the new Arctic data only. This suggests that Arctic Ocean infaunal taxa are suitable for capturing at least relative and probably semi-quantitative past changes in BWT. Arctic Oridorsalis tener Mg/Ca data are combined with existing O. umbonatus Mg/Ca data from well saturated core-tops from other regions to produce a temperature calibration with minimal influence of bottom water carbonate saturation state (Mg/Ca = 1.317 ± 0.03 × e^(0.102 ± 0.01 BWT), r2 = 0.7). The same approach for Cibicidoides wuellerstorfi yields Mg/Ca = 1.043 ± 0.03 × e^(0.118 ± 0.1 BWT), r2 = 0.4. Mg/Ca ratios of the porcelaneous epifaunal species Q. arctica show a clear positive relationship between Mg/Ca and Δ[CO32−] indicating that this species is not suitable for Mg/Ca-palaeothermometry at low temperatures, but may be useful in reconstructing carbonate system parameters through time.

  • 2018. David Ferreira (et al.). Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science 46, 327-352

    While the Atlantic Ocean is ventilated by high-latitude deep water formation and exhibits a pole-to-pole overturning circulation, the Pacific Ocean does not. This asymmetric global overturning pattern has persisted for the past 2-3 million years, with evidence for different ventilation modes in the deeper past. In the current climate, the Atlantic-Pacific asymmetry occurs because the Atlantic is more saline, enabling deep convection. To what extent the salinity contrast between the two basins is dominated by atmospheric processes (larger net evaporation over the Atlantic) or oceanic processes (salinity transport into the Atlantic) remains an outstanding question. Numerical simulations have provided support for both mechanisms; observations of the present climate support a strong role for atmospheric processes as well as some modulation by oceanic processes. A major avenue for future work is the quantification of the various processes at play to identify which mechanisms are primary in different climate states.

  • 2018. David K. Hutchinson (et al.). Climate of the Past 14 (6), 789-810

    The Eocene-Oligocene transition (EOT), which took place approximately 34 Ma ago, is an interval of great interest in Earth's climate history, due to the inception of the Antarctic ice sheet and major global cooling. Climate simulations of the transition are needed to help interpret proxy data, test mechanistic hypotheses for the transition and determine the climate sensitivity at the time. However, model studies of the EOT thus far typically employ control states designed for a different time period, or ocean resolution on the order of 3 degrees. Here we developed a new higher resolution palaeoclimate model configuration based on the GFDL CM2.1 climate model adapted to a late Eocene (38 Ma) palaeogeography reconstruction. The ocean and atmosphere horizontal resolutions are 1 degrees similar to 1.5 degrees and 3 degrees 3.75 ffi respectively. This represents a significant step forward in resolving the ocean geography, gateways and circulation in a coupled climate model of this period. We run the model under three different levels of atmospheric CO2: 400, 800 and 1600 ppm. The model exhibits relatively high sensitivity to CO2 compared with other recent model studies, and thus can capture the expected Eocene high latitude warmth within observed estimates of atmospheric CO2. However, the model does not capture the low meridional temperature gradient seen in proxies. Equatorial sea surface temperatures are too high in the model (3037 degrees C) compared with observations (max 32 degrees C), although observations are lacking in the warmest regions of the western Pacific. The model exhibits bipolar sinking in the North Pacific and Southern Ocean, which persists under all levels of CO2. North Atlantic surface salinities are too fresh to permit sinking (25-30 psu), due to surface transport from the very fresh Arctic (similar to 20 psu), where surface salinities approximately agree with Eocene proxy estimates. North Atlantic salinity increases by 1-2 psu when CO2 is halved, and similarly freshens when CO2 is doubled, due to changes in the hydrological cycle.

  • 2018. Helen K. Coxall (et al.). Nature Geoscience 11 (3), 190-196

    The onset of the North Atlantic Deep Water formation is thought to have coincided with Antarctic ice-sheet growth about 34 million years ago (Ma). However, this timing is debated, in part due to questions over the geochemical signature of the ancient Northern Component Water (NCW) formed in the deep North Atlantic. Here we present detailed geochemical records from North Atlantic sediment cores located close to sites of deep-water formation. We find that prior to 36 Ma, the northwestern Atlantic was stratified, with nutrient-rich, low-salinity bottom waters. This restricted basin transitioned into a conduit for NCW that began flowing southwards approximately one million years before the initial Antarctic glaciation. The probable trigger was tectonic adjustments in subarctic seas that enabled an increased exchange across the Greenland-Scotland Ridge. The increasing surface salinity and density strengthened the production of NCW. The late Eocene deep-water mass differed in its carbon isotopic signature from modern values as a result of the leakage of fossil carbon from the Arctic Ocean. Export of this nutrient-laden water provided a transient pulse of CO2 to the Earth system, which perhaps caused short-term warming, whereas the long-term effect of enhanced NCW formation was a greater northward heat transport that cooled Antarctica.

  • 2016. Heather S. Birch (et al.). Geology 44 (4), 287-290

    The impact of an asteroid at the end of the Cretaceous caused mass extinctions in the oceans. A rapid collapse in surface to deep-ocean carbon isotope gradients suggests that transfer of organic matter to the deep sea via the biological pump was severely perturbed. However, this view has been challenged by the survival of deep-sea benthic organisms dependent on surface-derived food and uncertainties regarding isotopic fractionation in planktic foraminifera used as tracers. Here we present new stable carbon (delta C-13) and oxygen (delta O-18) isotope data measured on carefully selected planktic and benthic foraminifera from an orbitally dated deep-sea sequence in the southeast Atlantic. Our approach uniquely combines delta O-18 evidence for habitat depth of foraminiferal tracer species with species-specific delta C-13 eco-adjustments, and compares isotopic patterns with corresponding benthic assemblage data. Our results show that changes in ocean circulation and foraminiferal vital effects contribute to but cannot explain all of the observed collapse in surface to deep-ocean foraminiferal delta C-13 gradient. We conclude that the biological pump was weakened as a consequence of marine extinctions, but less severely and for a shorter duration (maximum of 1.77 m.y.) than has previously been suggested.

  • 2014. Paul N. Pearson, Helen K. Coxall. Palaeontology 57 (2), 243-267

    Hantkenina is a distinctive planktonic foraminiferal genus characterized by the presence of tubulospines (robust hollow projections) on each adult chamber, from Middle and Upper Eocene marine sediments worldwide. Here we illustrate its evolutionary origin using c. 150 specimens from 30 stratigraphic intervals in two sediment cores from Tanzania. The specimens, which span an estimated time interval of 300 ka, show four intermediate steps in the evolution of the tubulospines that amount to a complete intergradation from Clavigerinella caucasica, which does not possess them, to Hantkenina mexicana, which does. Stable isotope analyses indicate that the transitional forms evolved in a deep planktonic habitat not occupied at that time by other species of planktonic foraminifera. We discuss the morphogenetic constraints involved in the evolutionary transition and propose an ecological/adaptive model for the selective pressures that resulted in the evolution of tubulospines. We compare our record with similar, recently described assemblages from Austria and Italy, and we update the biostratigraphy and systematic taxonomy of the key morphospecies involved in the transition.

  • 2013. Heather Birch (et al.). Marine Micropaleontology 101, 127-145

    Differential carbon and oxygen stable isotope (delta C-13 and delta O-18) fractionation between planktonic foraminifera test calcite and sea water related to ecology and life stage confound the potential for reconstructing palaeo-water column temperature and carbon gradients. Multi-species analysis and strict selection of test sizes are useful methods for identifying these fractionation processes, also known as 'vital effects', in fossil taxa. However, there are a limited number of species with adequate size-controlled data sets, needed for ground truthing the approach in the modern. Here we report delta C-13 and delta O-18 measurements made on twelve species of modern planktonic foraminifera across a range of fourteen tightly constrained size windows from a tropical Indian Ocean core top sample. This data set includes more test size windows per species, especially from the smallest (identifiable) test size-classes, and a wider range of species than previously attempted. We use the size controlled delta O-18 calcite trajectories to infer depth habitats and calculate species-specific calcification temperatures. The temperatures are then used to constrain species-specific calcification depths along the modern vertical temperature profile in the western tropical Indian Ocean. By overlaying the per species delta C-13 calcite trajectories on local water column delta C-13(DIC) profiles, we estimate if and when (i.e. at which test sizes) the planktonic foraminifera species investigated approach ambient delta C-13(DIC) values. The profiling shows significant size-controlled delta C-13 deviation from seawater values in all species at some life/growth stage, which we attribute to (i) metabolic fractionation in tests <150-300 mu m (juveniles of all species and small adults), and; (ii) photosymbiont fractionation, affecting large tests (>similar to 300 mu m) of mixed layer photosymbiotic taxa. For most species there is a size-window where these effects appear to be at a minimum, and/or in balance. Exceptions are Globigerinita glutinata, a small (<200 mu m) surface living species, Globigerina bulloides, which is highly opportunistic, and deep living Globorotalia tumida and Globorotaloides hexagonus, the latter two species being affected by various unexplained delta C-13 vital effects. Use of our refined guidelines for test-size selection should improve the potential for making realistic reconstructions of water column delta C-13(DIC) in a modern tropical stratified setting and potentially in the distant geological past when there are no living analogues present.

  • 2011. Helen K. Coxall, Paul A. Wilson. Paleoceanography 26, PA2221

    The onset of sustained Antarctic glaciation across the Eocene-Oligocene transition (EOT) marks a pivotal change in Earth's climate, but our understanding of this event, particularly the role of the carbon cycle, is limited. To help address this gap we present the following paleoceanographic proxy records from Ocean Drilling Program Site 1218 in the eastern equatorial Pacific (EEP): (1) stable isotope (delta(18)O and delta(13)C) records generated in epifaunal benthic foraminifera (Cibicidoides spp.) to improve (double the resolution) the previously published records; (2) delta(18)O and delta(13)C records measured on Oridorsalis umbonatus, a shallow infaunal species; and (3) a record of benthic foraminifera accumulation rate (BFAR). Our new isotope data sets confirm the existence at Site 1218 of a two-step delta(18)O increase. They also lend support to the hypothesized existence of a late Eocene transient delta(18)O increase and early Oligocene Oi-1a and Oi-1b glacial maxima. Our record of BFAR indicates a transient (similar to 500 kyr) twofold to threefold peak relative to baseline Oligocene values associated with the onset of Antarctic glaciation that we attribute to enhanced biological export production in the EEP. This takes the same general form as the history of opal accumulation in the Southern Ocean, suggesting strong high-to-low-latitude oceanic coupling. These findings appear to lend support to the idea that the EOT delta(13)C excursion is traceable to increased organic carbon (C(org)) burial. Paradoxically, early Oligocene sediments in the EEP are extremely C(org)-poor, and proxy records of atmospheric pCO(2) indicate a transient increase associated with the EOT.

  • 2013. T. Aze (et al.). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (32), E2946
  • 2013. J. V. Firth (et al.). Geological Society Special Publication - 373 (- 1), 29-78

    Lower Eocene to Oligocene microfossil-rich hemipelagic sediments in ODP Hole 647A, southern Labrador Sea, provide a strategic section for resolving the early history of high North Atlantic climates and ocean circulation, and for correlating with carbonate-poor lower Cenozoic sediments in the Arctic and Nordic seas. Our new, integrated palaeomagneto- and multigroup biostratigraphy (63 dinoflagellate cyst, calcareous nannofossil, planktonic foraminifer and diatom datums) significantly improves Site 647 chronostratigraphy and provides a framework for future studies. This new age model, coupled with provisional δ18O analyses, provides greater confidence in the location of significant ocean-climate events at this site, including the Eocene–Oligocene transition and the Middle Eocene Climatic Optimum. Early Eocene hyperthermals may also be present near the base of the section. Palaeomagnetic age control is significantly improved in the Eocene, but not in the Oligocene. Revised estimates of sedimentation and biogenic flux indicate changes in supply and preservation that may be climatically controlled. A Lower to Middle Eocene hiatus is more precisely constrained, with a c. 4 million year duration. Age and depth errors quantify the age uncertainties throughout the section. Our revised age model will play an important role in stratigraphic correlation between very high latitude and lower latitude sites

  • 2013. E. H. John (et al.). Philosophical Transactions. Series A 371 (2001), 1-21

    Sea surface and subsurface temperatures over large parts of the ocean during the Eocene epoch (55.5-33.7 Ma) exceeded modern values by several degrees, which must have affected a number of oceanic processes. Here, we focus on the effect of elevated water column temperatures on the efficiency of the biological pump, particularly in relation to carbon and nutrient cycling. We use stable isotope values from exceptionally well-preserved planktonic foraminiferal calcite from Tanzania and Mexico to reconstruct vertical carbon isotope gradients in the upper water column, exploiting the fact that individual species lived and calcified at different depths. The oxygen isotope ratios of different species' tests are used to estimate the temperature of calcification, which we converted to absolute depths using Eocene temperature profiles generated by general circulation models. This approach, along with potential pitfalls, is illustrated using data from modern core-top assemblages from the same area. Our results indicate that, during the Early and Middle Eocene, carbon isotope gradients were steeper (and larger) through the upper thermocline than in the modern ocean. This is consistent with a shallower average depth of organic matter remineralization and supports previously proposed hypotheses that invoke high metabolic rates in a warm Eocene ocean, leading to more efficient recycling of organic matter and reduced burial rates of organic carbon.

  • 2015. Daniele Reghellin (et al.). Paleoceanography 30 (10), 1261-1286

    To improve the understanding and utility of bulk carbonate stable carbon and oxygen isotope measurements, we examine sediment from cores in the eastern equatorial Pacific that span the last 8Ma. We measured C-13 and O-18 in 791 samples from Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Site U1338 and Deep Sea Drilling Project Site 573, both located close to the Pacific equator. In 100 samples, we measured C-13 and O-18 on isolated <63 mu m and <38 mu m fractions, which concentrates calcareous nannofossil carbonate and progressively excludes foraminiferal carbonate. Bulk carbonate C-13 and O-18 records are similar to published records from other sites drilled near the equator and seem to reflect mixed layer conditions, albeit with some important caveats involving the precipitation of calcite by coccolithophores. The comparatively lower C-13 and O-18 of the <63 mu m and <38 mu m fractions in sediments younger than 4.4Ma is attributed to an increase in deep-dwelling planktic foraminifera material in bulk carbonate, shifting the bulk isotopic signals toward higher values. Bulk carbonate C-13 is similar over 2500km along the Pacific equator, suggesting covarying concentrations and C-13 of dissolved inorganic carbon within surface waters since 8Ma. Greater bulk sediment C-13 and O-18, higher sedimentation rates, and low content of coarse material suggest intensified wind-driven upwelling and enhanced primary productivity along the Pacific equator between 8.0 and 4.4Ma, although a full understanding of bulk carbonate records will require extensive future work.

  • 2018. Matt O`Regan (et al.). Boreas 47 (4), 1102-1117

    Deglacial and Holocene relative sea level (RSL) in the Canadian Beaufort Sea was influenced by the timing and extent of glacial ice in the Mackenzie River corridor and adjacent coastal plains. Considerable evidence indicates extensive ice cover in this region of northwestern Canada during the Late Wisconsinan. However, no absolute ages exist to constrain maximum RSL lowering before the late Holocene (4.2-0ka). In 1984, the Geological Survey of Canada drilled an 81.5-m-deep borehole in the western Mackenzie Trough at 45m water depth (MTW01). The lower 52.5m of the borehole was interpreted as a deltaic progradational sequence deposited during a period of rising sea level. The upper 29m was described as foraminifer-bearing marine sediments deposited after transgression of the site, when RSL rose above similar to-74m. Here, we present radiocarbon measurements from MTW01, acquired from benthic foraminifera, mollusc fragments and particulate organic carbon in the >63m fraction (POC>63m) in an attempt to constrain the chronology of sediments within this borehole and date the timing of transgression. The deepest carbonate macrofossil was acquired from 8m above the transgressive surface (equivalent to 21m b.s.l.), where mollusc fragments returned a date of 9400 +180-260cal. a BP (2 sigma). This provides the oldest constraint on Holocene sea-level lowering in the region, and implies that transgression at this site occurred prior to the early Holocene. Ages obtained from the lower 52.5m of the borehole are limited to POC>63m samples. These indicate that progradational sediments were deposited rapidly after 24820 +390-380cal. a BP (2 sigma). Due to the incorporation of older reworked organic matter, the actual age of progradation is likely to be younger, occurring after Late Wisconsinan glacial ice retreated from the coast.

  • 2017. Martin Jakobsson (et al.). Climate of the Past 13 (8), 991-1005

    The Bering Strait connects the Arctic and Pacific oceans and separates the North American and Asian landmasses. The presently shallow (similar to 53 m) strait was exposed during the sea level lowstand of the last glacial period, which permitted human migration across a land bridge today referred to as the Bering Land Bridge. Proxy studies (stable isotope composition of foraminifera, whale migration into the Arctic Ocean, mollusc and insect fossils and paleobotanical data) have suggested a range of ages for the Bering Strait reopening, mainly falling within the Younger Dryas stadial (12.9-11.7 cal ka BP). Here we provide new information on the deglacial and post-glacial evolution of the Arctic-Pacific connection through the Bering Strait based on analyses of geological and geophysical data from Herald Canyon, located north of the Bering Strait on the Chukchi Sea shelf region in the western Arctic Ocean. Our results suggest an initial opening at about 11 cal ka BP in the earliest Holocene, which is later than in several previous studies. Our key evidence is based on a well-dated core from Herald Canyon, in which a shift from a near-shore environment to a Pacific-influenced open marine setting at around 11 cal ka BP is observed. The shift corresponds to meltwater pulse 1b (MWP1b) and is interpreted to signify relatively rapid breaching of the Bering Strait and the submergence of the large Bering Land Bridge. Although the precise rates of sea level rise cannot be quantified, our new results suggest that the late deglacial sea level rise was rapid and occurred after the end of the Younger Dryas stadial.

Show all publications by Helen Coxall at Stockholm University


Last updated: April 15, 2019

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