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Glacier retreat in New Zealand during the Younger Dryas stadial


Millennial-scale cold reversals in the high latitudes of both hemispheres interrupted the last transition from full glacial to interglacial climate conditions. The presence of the Younger Dryas stadial (12.9 to 11.7 kyr ago) is established throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, but the global timing, nature and extent of the event are not well established. Evidence in mid to low latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, in particular, has remained perplexing1,2,3,4,5,6. The debate has in part focused on the behaviour of mountain glaciers in New Zealand, where previous research has found equivocal evidence for the precise timing of increased or reduced ice extent1,2,3. The interhemispheric behaviour of the climate system during the Younger Dryas thus remains an open question, fundamentally limiting our ability to formulate realistic models of global climate dynamics for this time period. Here we show that New Zealand’s glaciers retreated after 13 kyr bp, at the onset of the Younger Dryas, and in general over the subsequent 1.5-kyr period. Our evidence is based on detailed landform mapping, a high-precision 10Be chronology7 and reconstruction of former ice extents and snow lines from well-preserved cirque moraines. Our late-glacial glacier chronology matches climatic trends in Antarctica, Southern Ocean behaviour and variations in atmospheric CO2. The evidence points to a distinct warming of the southern mid-latitude atmosphere during the Younger Dryas and a close coupling between New Zealand’s cryosphere and southern high-latitude climate. These findings support the hypothesis that extensive winter sea ice and curtailed meridional ocean overturning in the North Atlantic led to a strong interhemispheric thermal gradient8 during late-glacial times, in turn leading to increased upwelling and CO2 release from the Southern Ocean9, thereby triggering Southern Hemisphere warming during the northern Younger Dryas.

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Figure 1: Glacial geomorphology map of the moraines in the Irishman basin, showing locations of sample sites and measured 10 Be ages.
Figure 2: Glacier changes in Irishman basin, New Zealand, in comparison with other climate proxy records.


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We thank the Comer family and W. Broecker for their support of our work. We thank B. Goehring for assisting with probability plots, S. Kelley for field assistance, T. Ritchie and K. Ritchie at Lake Ruataniwha Holiday Park for hospitality and the Helicopter Line at Glentanner Park. This research is supported by the Gary C. Comer Science and Education Foundation, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (specifically support to G.H.D. and for field work), and National Science Foundation awards EAR-0745781, 0936077 and 0823521. D.J.A.B. was supported by Foundation for Research, Science and Technology contract CO5X0701. This is LDEO contribution #7371.

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G.H.D., M.R.K. and J.M.S. instigated this research. M.R.K., J.M.S., R.C.F. and R.S. were responsible for all laboratory efforts, including sample processing, and data interpretation. M.R.K., A.E.P. and A.M.D. participated in field work and designed the field sampling strategies. D.J.A.B., T.J.H.C. and B.G.A. were mainly responsible for the mapping, glacier reconstructions and ELA estimates. All authors contributed to manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Michael R. Kaplan.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Methods, a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1-3, additional references, Supplementary Figures 1- 4 with legends and Supplementary Statistics relating to Supplementary Figure 1 and Figure 1 in the main paper. (PDF 1802 kb)

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Kaplan, M., Schaefer, J., Denton, G. et al. Glacier retreat in New Zealand during the Younger Dryas stadial. Nature 467, 194–197 (2010).

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