The sudden, widespread glaciation of Antarctica and the associated shift towards colder temperatures at the Eocene/Oligocene boundary (∼34 million years ago) (refs 1–4) is one of the most fundamental reorganizations of global climate known in the geologic record. The glaciation of Antarctica has hitherto been thought to result from the tectonic opening of Southern Ocean gateways, which enabled the formation of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the subsequent thermal isolation of the Antarctic continent5. Here we simulate the glacial inception and early growth of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet using a general circulation model with coupled components for atmosphere, ocean, ice sheet and sediment, and which incorporates palaeogeography, greenhouse gas, changing orbital parameters, and varying ocean heat transport. In our model, declining Cenozoic CO2 first leads to the formation of small, highly dynamic ice caps on high Antarctic plateaux. At a later time, a CO2 threshold is crossed, initiating ice-sheet height/mass-balance feedbacks that cause the ice caps to expand rapidly with large orbital variations, eventually coalescing into a continental-scale East Antarctic Ice Sheet. According to our simulation the opening of Southern Ocean gateways plays a secondary role in this transition, relative to CO2 concentration.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Zachos, J. C., Quinn, T. M. & Salamy, K. A. High-resolution (104 years) deep-sea foraminiferal stable isotope records of the Eocene–Oligocene climate transition. Paleoceanography 11, 251–266 (1996)
Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L. & Thomas, E. Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present. Science 292, 686–693 (2001)
Lear, C. H., Elderfield, H. & Wilson, P. A. Cenozoic deep-sea temperatures and global ice volumes from Mg/Ca in benthic foraminiferal calcite. Science 287, 269–272 (2000)
Barrett, P. J. Antarctic paleoenvironment through Cenozoic times—a review. Terr. Antarct. 3, 103–119 (1996)
Kennett, J. P. Cenozoic evolution of Antarctic glaciation, the circum-Antarctic oceans and their impact on global paleoceanography. J. Geophys. Res. 82, 3843–3859 (1977)
Lawver, L. A., Gahagan, L. M. & Coffin, M. F. in The Antarctic Paleoenvironment: A Perspective on Global Change (eds Kennett, J. P. & Warnke, D. A.) 7–30 (American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 1992)
Hambrey, M. J., Larsen, B. & Ehrmann, W. U. in Ocean Drilling Program Scientific Results 119 (eds Barron, J. & Larsen, B.) 77–132 (College Station, Texas, 1991)
Wilson, G. S., Roberts, A. P., Verosub, K. L., Florindo, F. & Sagnotti, L. Magnetobiostratigraphic chronology of the Eocene–Oligocene transition in the CIROS-1 core, Victoria Land margin, Antarctica: Implications for Antarctic glacial history. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 110, 35–47 (1998)
Zachos, J. C., Breza, J. R. & Wise, S. W. Early Oligocene ice sheet expansion on Antarctica: stable isotope and sedimentological evidence from Kerguelen Plateau, southern Indian Ocean. Geology 20, 569–573 (1992)
Ehrmann, W. U. & Mackensen, A. Sedimentologic evidence for the formation of an East Antarctic ice sheet in Eocene/Oligocene time. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 93, 85–112 (1992)
Francis, J. E. Evidence from fossil plants for Antarctic Paleoclimates over the past 100 million years. Terr. Antarct. Rep. 3, 43–52 (1999)
Barrett, P. J., Elston, D. P., Harwood, D. M., McKelvey, B. C. & Webb, P.-N. Mid-Cenozoic record of glaciation and sea-level change on the margin of Victoria Land basin, Antarctica. Geology 15, 634–637 (1987)
Naish, T. R. et al. Orbitally induced oscillations in the East Antarctic ice sheet at the Oligocene/Miocene boundary. Nature 413, 719–723 (2001)
Exon, N., Kennett, J., Malone, M. & the Leg 189 Shipboard Scientific Party. The opening of the Tasmanian gateway drove global Cenozoic paleoclimatic and paleoceanographic changes: results of Leg 189. JOIDES J. 26, 11–17 (2000)
Toggweiler, J. R. & Bjornsson, H. Drake Passage and paleoclimate. J. Quat. Sci. 15, 319–328 (2000)
Nong, G. T., Najjar, R. G., Seidov, D. & Peterson, W. Simulation of ocean temperature change due to the opening of Drake Passage. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 2689–2692 (2000)
Lawver, L. A. & Gahagan, L. M. in Tectonic Boundary Conditions for Climate Reconstructions (eds Crowley, T. J. & Burke, K. C.) 212–223 (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1998)
Barker, P. F. & Burrell, J. The opening of Drake Passage. Mar. Geol. 25, 15–34 (1977)
Pearson, P. N. & Palmer, M. R. Atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 million years. Nature 406, 695–699 (2000)
Pagani, M., Arthur, M. A. & Freeman, K. H. Miocene evolution of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Paleoceanography 14, 273–292 (1999)
Birchfield, G. E., Weertman, J. & Lunde, A. T. A model study of the role of high latitude topography in the climatic response to orbital insolation anomalies. J. Atmos. Sci. 39, 71–87 (1982)
Abe-Ouchi, A. & Blatter, H. On the initiation of ice sheets. Ann. Glaciaol. 18, 203–207 (1993)
Maqueda, M., Willmott, A. J., Bamber, J. L. & Darby, M. S. An investigation of the small ice cap instability in the Southern Hemisphere with a coupled atmosphere–sea ice–ocean–terrestrial ice model. Clim. Dyn. 14, 329–352 (1998)
Huybrechts, P. Glaciological modelling of the late Cenozoic East Antarctic ice sheet: stability or dynamism? Geograf. Annal. 75, 221–238 (1993)
Thompson, S. L. & Pollard, D. Greenland and Antarctic mass balances for present and doubled atmospheric CO2 from the GENESIS Version-2 Global Climate Model. J. Clim. 10, 871–900 (1997)
Kamb, B. in The West Antarctic Ice Sheet: Behaviour and Environment (eds Alley, R. A. & Bindschadler, R. A.) 157–199 (American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 2001)
Clark, P. U. & Pollard, D. Origin of the mid-Pleistocene transition by ice-sheet erosion of regolith. Paleoceanography 13, 1–9 (1998)
Brotchie, J. F. & Sylvester, R. On crustal flexure. J. Geophys. Res. 74, 5240–5252 (1969)
Ritz, C., Fabre, A. & Letreguilly, A. Sensitivity of a Greenland ice-sheet model to ice flow and ablation parameters: consequences for the evolution through the last climate cycle. Clim. Dyn. 13, 11–24 (1997)
Bamber, J. A. & Bindschadler, R. A. An improved elevation dataset for climate and ice-sheet modelling: validation with satellite imagery. Ann. Glaciol 25, 439–444 (1997)
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation.
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
DeConto, R., Pollard, D. Rapid Cenozoic glaciation of Antarctica induced by declining atmospheric CO2. Nature 421, 245–249 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01290
Geological and tectonic evolution of the Transantarctic Mountains, from ancient craton to recent enigma
Gondwana Research (2020)
Antarctic Science (2020)
Diagenesis and sedimentary environment of the lower Xiaganchaigou formation deposited during the Eocene/Oligocene transition in the Lenghu tectonic belt, Qaidam Basin, China
Environmental Earth Sciences (2020)
Fish proliferation and rare-earth deposition by topographically induced upwelling at the late Eocene cooling event
Scientific Reports (2020)
The Eocene‐Oligocene Transition in the South‐Western Neo‐Tethys (Tunisia): Astronomical Calibration and Paleoenvironmental Changes
Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology (2020)