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The Gamburtsev mountains and the origin and early evolution of the Antarctic Ice Sheet


Ice-sheet development in Antarctica was a result of significant and rapid global climate change about 34 million years ago1. Ice-sheet and climate modelling suggest reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide (less than three times the pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million by volume) that, in conjunction with the development of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, led to cooling and glaciation paced by changes in Earth’s orbit2. Based on the present subglacial topography, numerical models point to ice-sheet genesis on mountain massifs of Antarctica, including the Gamburtsev mountains at Dome A, the centre of the present ice sheet2,3. Our lack of knowledge of the present-day topography of the Gamburtsev mountains4 means, however, that the nature of early glaciation and subsequent development of a continental-sized ice sheet are uncertain. Here we present radar information about the base of the ice at Dome A, revealing classic Alpine topography with pre-existing river valleys overdeepened by valley glaciers formed when the mean summer surface temperature was around 3 °C. This landscape is likely to have developed during the initial phases of Antarctic glaciation. According to Antarctic climate history (estimated from offshore sediment records) the Gamburtsev mountains are probably older than 34 million years and were the main centre for ice-sheet growth. Moreover, the landscape has most probably been preserved beneath the present ice sheet for around 14 million years.

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Figure 1: Location of Dome A and orientation of radar transects.
Figure 2: Subglacial topography of the central Gamburtsev mountains.
Figure 3: Longitudinal profiles and drainage area–distance plots of Dome A tributary valleys.


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This paper is based upon work supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (40476005), the International Polar Year programme CHINARE (Ministry of Science and Technology of China 2006BAB18B03) and the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NE/D003733/1). We thank A. Wright for drawing Fig. 1c.

Author Contributions S.B., C.X., J.Y., T.X. and L.Y. collected and processed radar data. S.F. prepared and provided a radar system in the 2004/2005 season, and gave support and advice on the radar technique, data collection and data processing. M.J.S. and D.S. provided knowledge of Antarctic glacial history and glacial dynamics. S.M.M. analysed the DEM for quantitative information on the dendritic network and landform features. M.J.S., D.S., S.M.M. and S.B. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Sun Bo or Martin J. Siegert.

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Bo, S., Siegert, M., Mudd, S. et al. The Gamburtsev mountains and the origin and early evolution of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Nature 459, 690–693 (2009).

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