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Obliquity-paced Pliocene West Antarctic ice sheet oscillations


Thirty years after oxygen isotope records from microfossils deposited in ocean sediments confirmed the hypothesis that variations in the Earth’s orbital geometry control the ice ages1, fundamental questions remain over the response of the Antarctic ice sheets to orbital cycles2. Furthermore, an understanding of the behaviour of the marine-based West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) during the ‘warmer-than-present’ early-Pliocene epoch (5–3 Myr ago) is needed to better constrain the possible range of ice-sheet behaviour in the context of future global warming3. Here we present a marine glacial record from the upper 600 m of the AND-1B sediment core recovered from beneath the northwest part of the Ross ice shelf by the ANDRILL programme and demonstrate well-dated, 40-kyr cyclic variations in ice-sheet extent linked to cycles in insolation influenced by changes in the Earth’s axial tilt (obliquity) during the Pliocene. Our data provide direct evidence for orbitally induced oscillations in the WAIS, which periodically collapsed, resulting in a switch from grounded ice, or ice shelves, to open waters in the Ross embayment when planetary temperatures were up to 3 °C warmer than today4 and atmospheric CO2 concentration was as high as 400 p.p.m.v. (refs 5, 6). The evidence is consistent with a new ice-sheet/ice-shelf model7 that simulates fluctuations in Antarctic ice volume of up to +7 m in equivalent sea level associated with the loss of the WAIS and up to +3 m in equivalent sea level from the East Antarctic ice sheet, in response to ocean-induced melting paced by obliquity. During interglacial times, diatomaceous sediments indicate high surface-water productivity, minimal summer sea ice and air temperatures above freezing, suggesting an additional influence of surface melt8 under conditions of elevated CO2.

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Figure 1: Location of the ANDRILL McMurdo Ice Shelf Project AND-1B drill site in the northwestern corner of the Ross ice shelf.
Figure 2: Stratigraphic and chronologic summary of the upper 600 m of the AND-1B core showing 38 sedimentary cycles of ice-sheet advance, retreat and re-advance during the last 5 Myr.
Figure 3: Detailed analysis of early-Pliocene sedimentary cycles in the AND-1B core showing lithofacies interpretations of glacimarine environments.
Figure 4: Detailed analysis of late early-Pliocene sedimentary cycles in the AND-1B core showing lithofacies interpretations of glacimarine environments.


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The ANDRILL project is a multinational collaboration between the Antarctic programmes of Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the United States. Antarctica New Zealand is the project operator and developed the drilling system in collaboration with A. Pyne. Antarctica New Zealand supported the drilling team at Scott Base; Raytheon Polar Services Corporation supported the science team at McMurdo Station and the Crary Science and Engineering Laboratory. The ANDRILL Science Management Office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln provided science planning and operational support. The scientific studies are jointly supported by the US National Science Foundation, the New Zealand Foundation for Research Science and Technology and the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund, the Italian Antarctic Research Programme, the German Research Foundation and the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research.

Author Contributions All authors contributed to acquisition, analysis and interpretation of data presented in this paper. T.N.: overall coordination of writing, sedimentology, cyclostratigraphic and climatic interpretations; R.P.: integration, glacial facies, glacial process and interpretations of ice-sheet history; R.L.: integration, biochronology and age-model construction; L.K.: core description and sedimentological interpretation; F.N.: core description and physical properties interpretation; M.P.: petrological interpretation; R.S.: integration, diatom biostratigraphic and environmental interpretations; F.T.: clast abundance, composition and provenance interpretations; G.W.: palaeomagnetic stratigraphy and age-model construction; T. Wilson: core description, structural and tectonic constraints; L.C.: sedimentology & palaeo-oceanographic interpretations; R. McKay: sedimentology, glacial facies interpretations and ice-sheet history; J. Ross: 40A/39Ar geochronology and age-model construction; D.W.: diatom biostratigraphy and environmental interpretations; P.B.: glacial process and interpretations of ice-sheet history; G.B.: glacimarine sequence stratigraphy and facies interpretations; R.C.: biochronology and age-model construction; E.C.: glacial facies, glacial process and interpretations of ice-sheet history; J.C.: biochronology and age-model construction; R.D.: ice-sheet-model data interpretation and integration; G.D.: core description, facies and sedimentological interpretation; N.D.: 40Ar/39Ar geochronology and petrological interpretation; F.F.: palaeomagnetic interpretations and age-model construction; C.G.: core description and physical properties interpretation; I.G.: geochronology and age-model construction; M.H.: biostratigraphy and environmental interpretation; D. Harwood: diatom biostratigraphy and biochronology; D. Hansaraj: regional seismic stratigraphic context; D. Helling: geochemical interpretation; S.H.: regional stratigraphic framework and tectonic constraints; L.H.: time-series analysis; P.H.: Milankovitch forcing and palaeoclimatic interpretations; G.K.: geochemical interpretation; P.K.: volcanic petrology and volcanological interpretation; A.L.: core description and structural analysis; P.M.: diatom biostratigraphy and environmental interpretations; D.M.: core description and physical properties interpretation; K.M.: core description; W.M.: 40Ar/39Ar geochronology and volcanological interpretation; C.M.: core description and structural analysis; R. Morin: borehole description and down-hole geophysics; C.O.: palaeomagnetic stratigraphy and age-model construction; T.P.: core and description and structural geology; D. Persico: calcareous nannofossil biostratigraphy; D. Pollard: ice-sheet-model data interpretation and integration; J. Reed: core description and visualization; C.R.: diatom biostratigraphy and environmental interpretation; I.R.: palynology and environmental interpretation; D.S.: core and borehole description and structural geology; L.S.: palaeomagnetic stratigraphy and age-model construction; C.S.: diatom biostratigraphy and environmental interpretation; P.S.: foram biostratigraphy and environmental interpretation; M.T.: macrofossil biostratigraphy and environmental interpretation; S.V.: subglacial geological interpretation; T. Wilch: core description and interpretation of volcaniclastic sediments; T. Williams: borehole description and down-hole geophysics.

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Naish, T., Powell, R., Levy, R. et al. Obliquity-paced Pliocene West Antarctic ice sheet oscillations. Nature 458, 322–328 (2009).

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