The period between 75,000 and 20,000 years ago was characterized by high variability in climate and sea level. Southern Ocean records of ice-rafted debris suggest a significant contribution to the sea level changes from melt water of Antarctic origin, in addition to likely contributions from northern ice sheets, but the relative volumes of melt water from northern and southern sources have yet to be established. Here we simulate the first-order impact of a range of relative meltwater releases from the two polar regions on the distribution of marine oxygen isotopes, using an intermediate complexity model. By comparing our simulations with oxygen isotope data from sediment cores, we infer that the contributions from Antarctica and the northern ice sheets to the documented sea level rises between 65,000 and 35,000 years ago were approximately equal, each accounting for a rise of about 15 m. The reductions in Antarctic ice volume implied by our analysis are comparable to that inferred previously for the Antarctic contribution to meltwater pulse 1A (refs 16, 17), which occurred about 14,200 years ago, during the last deglaciation.
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