Glacier retreat in New Zealand during the Younger Dryas stadial

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Millennial-scale cold reversals in the high latitudes of both hemispheres interrupted the last transition from full glacial to interglacial climate conditions. The presence of the Younger Dryas stadial (~12.9 to ~11.7kyr ago) is established throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, but the global timing, nature and extent of the event are not well established. Evidence in mid to low latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, in particular, has remained perplexing1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The debate has in part focused on the behaviour of mountain glaciers in New Zealand, where previous research has found equivocal evidence for the precise timing of increased or reduced ice extent1, 2, 3. The interhemispheric behaviour of the climate system during the Younger Dryas thus remains an open question, fundamentally limiting our ability to formulate realistic models of global climate dynamics for this time period. Here we show that New Zealand’s glaciers retreated after ~13kyr bp, at the onset of the Younger Dryas, and in general over the subsequent ~1.5-kyr period. Our evidence is based on detailed landform mapping, a high-precision 10Be chronology7 and reconstruction of former ice extents and snow lines from well-preserved cirque moraines. Our late-glacial glacier chronology matches climatic trends in Antarctica, Southern Ocean behaviour and variations in atmospheric CO2. The evidence points to a distinct warming of the southern mid-latitude atmosphere during the Younger Dryas and a close coupling between New Zealand’s cryosphere and southern high-latitude climate. These findings support the hypothesis that extensive winter sea ice and curtailed meridional ocean overturning in the North Atlantic led to a strong interhemispheric thermal gradient8 during late-glacial times, in turn leading to increased upwelling and CO2 release from the Southern Ocean9, thereby triggering Southern Hemisphere warming during the northern Younger Dryas.

At a glance


  1. Glacial geomorphology map of the moraines in the Irishman basin, showing locations of sample sites and measured 10Be ages.
    Figure 1: Glacial geomorphology map of the moraines in the Irishman basin, showing locations of sample sites and measured 10Be ages.

    The map (~1:10,000 scale) differentiates between discrete moraine ridges and areas of more diffuse moraine28. Individual ages are shown in kiloyears with their 1σ analytical errors. Outliers are in non-bold. Systematic uncertainties, such as that associated with the production rate, are minimal when comparing ages of adjacent moraines. Inset maps show location on South Island (top right) and in relation to adjacent major valley systems (top left).

  2. Glacier changes in Irishman basin, New Zealand, in comparison with other climate proxy records.
    Figure 2: Glacier changes in Irishman basin, New Zealand, in comparison with other climate proxy records.

    a, For the Irishman basin, glacier terminus retreat distance and ELA changes are shown for ~13.0kyr, ~12kyr and ~11.5kyr bp, calculated on the basis of 10Be dating of the moraines (Supplementary Information). Retreat distance is used to show the response of the glacier. We emphasize the pattern of change during the ~1.5-kyr interval for these two parameters. Age uncertainties for the ~13- and ~11.5-kyr moraines include the systematic uncertainties for production rate used, for comparison with other records. b, Carbon abundance (percentage carbon) and ratio of lowland podocarp to grass pollen (LPG) from Kaipo bog, North Island19. These proxies indicate the end of the late-glacial reversal and warming early on and through the YDS interval. The age model is based on midpoints of calibrated age ranges19. c, δD (deuterium) and CO2 from European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) Dome C29, 30. The late-glacial ACR interrupted the prominent glacial-to-interglacial CO2 increase. d, Opal flux from sediment core TN057-13PC9. Spanning the onset of the YDS, between ~13 and ~12kyr ago, records ad show warming in the Southern Hemisphere that matches closely the rise of CO2 concentrations and variations in oceanic upwelling as recorded in the flux of opal. e, f, δ18O ((18O/16O)sample/(18O/16O)standard1×1,000, where the standard is standard mean ocean water) from the North Greenland Ice Core Project11 (NGRIP; e) and from the Hulu and Dongge caves, China15 (f). Dark- and light-blue shaded regions represent the YDS and ACR cold periods, respectively10, 11, 30.


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Author information


  1. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Geochemistry, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • Michael R. Kaplan,
    • Joerg M. Schaefer &
    • Roseanne Schwartz
  2. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Joerg M. Schaefer
  3. Department of Earth Sciences and Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA

    • George H. Denton &
    • Aaron E. Putnam
  4. GNS Science, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand

    • David J. A. Barrell
  5. Alpine and Polar Processes Consultancy, Lake Hawea, Otago 9382, New Zealand

    • Trevor J. H. Chinn
  6. Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, 0316-Oslo, Norway

    • Bjørn G. Andersen
  7. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, California 95064, USA

    • Robert C. Finkel
  8. CEREGE, 13545 Aix-en-Provence, Cedex 4, France

    • Robert C. Finkel
  9. Antarctic Research Centre and School of Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington 6140, New Zealand

    • Alice M. Doughty


G.H.D., M.R.K. and J.M.S. instigated this research. M.R.K., J.M.S., R.C.F. and R.S. were responsible for all laboratory efforts, including sample processing, and data interpretation. M.R.K., A.E.P. and A.M.D. participated in field work and designed the field sampling strategies. D.J.A.B., T.J.H.C. and B.G.A. were mainly responsible for the mapping, glacier reconstructions and ELA estimates. All authors contributed to manuscript preparation.

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Supplementary information

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  1. Supplementary Information (1.7M)

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1-3, additional references, Supplementary Figures 1- 4 with legends and Supplementary Statistics relating to Supplementary Figure 1 and Figure 1 in the main paper.

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