The low-latitude ocean is strongly stratified by the warmth of its surface water. As a result, the great volume of the deep ocean has easiest access to the atmosphere through the polar surface ocean. In the modern polar ocean during the winter, the vertical distribution of temperature promotes overturning, with colder water over warmer, while the salinity distribution typically promotes stratification, with fresher water over saltier. However, the sensitivity of seawater density to temperature is reduced as temperature approaches the freezing point, with potential consequences for global ocean circulation under cold climates. Here we present deep-sea records of biogenic opal accumulation and sedimentary nitrogen isotopic composition from the Subarctic North Pacific Ocean and the Southern Ocean. These records indicate that vertical stratification increased in both northern and southern high latitudes 2.7 million years ago, when Northern Hemisphere glaciation intensified in association with global cooling during the late Pliocene epoch. We propose that the cooling caused this increased stratification by weakening the role of temperature in polar ocean density structure so as to reduce its opposition to the stratifying effect of the vertical salinity distribution. The shift towards stratification in the polar ocean 2.7 million years ago may have increased the quantity of carbon dioxide trapped in the abyss, amplifying the global cooling.