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Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials

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Abstract

Understanding ice sheet behaviour in the geological past is essential for evaluating the role of the cryosphere in the climate system and for projecting rates and magnitudes of sea level rise in future warming scenarios1–4. Although both geological data5–7 and ice sheet models3,8 indicate that marine-based sectors of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet were unstable during Pliocene warm intervals, the ice sheet dynamics during late Pleistocene interglacial intervals are highly uncertain3,9,10. Here we provide evidence from marine sedimentological and geochemical records for ice margin retreat or thinning in the vicinity of the Wilkes Subglacial Basin of East Antarctica during warm late Pleistocene interglacial intervals. The most extreme changes in sediment provenance, recording changes in the locus of glacial erosion, occurred during marine isotope stages 5, 9, and 11, when Antarctic air temperatures11 were at least two degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures for 2,500 years or more. Hence, our study indicates a close link between extended Antarctic warmth and ice loss from the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, providing ice-proximal data to support a contribution to sea level from a reduced East Antarctic Ice Sheet during warm interglacial intervals. While the behaviour of other regions of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet remains to be assessed, it appears that modest future warming may be sufficient to cause ice loss from the Wilkes Subglacial Basin.

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Wilson, D. J., Bertram, R. A., Needham, E. F., van de Flierdt, T., Welsh, K. J., McKay, R. M., … Escutia, C. (2018). Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials. Nature, 561(7723), 383–386. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0501-8

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