Letter | Published:

Modelling West Antarctic ice sheet growth and collapse through the past five million years

Nature volume 458, pages 329332 (19 March 2009) | Download Citation



The West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS), with ice volume equivalent to 5 m of sea level1, has long been considered capable of past and future catastrophic collapse2,3,4. Today, the ice sheet is fringed by vulnerable floating ice shelves that buttress the fast flow of inland ice streams. Grounding lines are several hundred metres below sea level and the bed deepens upstream, raising the prospect of runaway retreat3,5. Projections of future WAIS behaviour have been hampered by limited understanding of past variations and their underlying forcing mechanisms6,7. Its variation since the Last Glacial Maximum is best known, with grounding lines advancing to the continental-shelf edges around 15 kyr ago before retreating to near-modern locations by 3 kyr ago8. Prior collapses during the warmth of the early Pliocene epoch9 and some Pleistocene interglacials have been suggested indirectly from records of sea level and deep-sea-core isotopes, and by the discovery of open-ocean diatoms in subglacial sediments10. Until now11, however, little direct evidence of such behaviour has been available. Here we use a combined ice sheet/ice shelf model12 capable of high-resolution nesting with a new treatment of grounding-line dynamics and ice-shelf buttressing5 to simulate Antarctic ice sheet variations over the past five million years. Modelled WAIS variations range from full glacial extents with grounding lines near the continental shelf break, intermediate states similar to modern, and brief but dramatic retreats, leaving only small, isolated ice caps on West Antarctic islands. Transitions between glacial, intermediate and collapsed states are relatively rapid, taking one to several thousand years. Our simulation is in good agreement with a new sediment record (ANDRILL AND-1B) recovered from the western Ross Sea11, indicating a long-term trend from more frequently collapsed to more glaciated states, dominant 40-kyr cyclicity in the Pliocene, and major retreats at marine isotope stage 31 (1.07 Myr ago) and other super-interglacials.

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We thank T. Naish and R. Powell for discussions on this work, and P. Barrett for comments on the manuscript. This work was funded by the US National Science Foundation under awards ATM-0513402/0513421, ANT-034248 and ANT-0424589.

Author information


  1. Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA

    • David Pollard
  2. Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, USA

    • Robert M. DeConto


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Pollard.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains, Supplementary Data and Notes, Supplementary Figures S1-S8 with Legends, Supplementary References and Supplementary Video Legends.


  1. 1.

    Supplementary Video 1

    This video shows simulated Antarctic ice elevations/thicknesses from 400 ka to the present (see file s1 for full legend).

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Video 2

    This video shows simulated Antarctic ice elevations/thicknesses from 1.7 Ma to 0.6 Ma (see file s1 for full legend).

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Video 3

    This video shows model ice velocities for an 8000-year high-resolution nested simulation (see file s1 for full legend).

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Video 4

    This video shows model ice basal temperatures for an 8000-year high-resolution nested simulation (see file s1 for full legend).

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