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Evidence for warmer interglacials in East Antarctic ice cores


Stable isotope ratios of oxygen and hydrogen in the Antarctic ice core record have revolutionized our understanding of Pleistocene climate variations and have allowed reconstructions of Antarctic temperature over the past 800,000 years (800 kyr; refs 1, 2). The relationship between the D/H ratio of mean annual precipitation and mean annual surface air temperature is said to be uniform ±10% over East Antarctica3 and constant with time ±20% (refs 3–5). In the absence of strong independent temperature proxy evidence allowing us to calibrate individual ice cores, prior general circulation model (GCM) studies have supported the assumption of constant uniform conversion for climates cooler than that of the present day3,5. Here we analyse the three available 340 kyr East Antarctic ice core records alongside input from GCM modelling. We show that for warmer interglacial periods the relationship between temperature and the isotopic signature varies among ice core sites, and that therefore the conversions must be nonlinear for at least some sites. Model results indicate that the isotopic composition of East Antarctic ice is less sensitive to temperature changes during warmer climates. We conclude that previous temperature estimates from interglacial climates are likely to be too low. The available evidence is consistent with a peak Antarctic interglacial temperature that was at least 6 K higher than that of the present day —approximately double the widely quoted 3 ± 1.5 K (refs 5, 6).

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Figure 1: Time series of Dome C, Dome F and Vostok ice core δ records from preindustrial times until 336.5 kyr ago.
Figure 2: Observed ice core Rδ against δ.
Figure 3: The geographical pattern of , separated into a temperature change component RT and a palaeothermometer component Ra .
Figure 4: The δ versus T palaeothermometer relationship.

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We thank W. Connolley for assistance with model set-up; T. Bracegirdle for organizing multi-model AR4 output; NERC RAPID ISOMAP for funding the model development; and the modelling groups, and the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) and the WCRP's Working Group on Coupled Modelling (WGCM) for their roles in making available the WCRP CMIP3 multi-model data set.

Author Contributions L.C.S. and E.W.W. discussed the original concept for the work. L.C.S. and K.I.C.O. wrote the ice core Rδ analysis. J.C.T. wrote the isotopic code for the HadAM3 model. L.C.S. set up and analysed the isotopic HadAM3 experiments and analysed the additional AR4 GCM output. L.C.S. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and modified the manuscript.

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Correspondence to L. C. Sime.

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Sime, L., Wolff, E., Oliver, K. et al. Evidence for warmer interglacials in East Antarctic ice cores. Nature 462, 342–345 (2009).

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