Repeated large-scale retreat and advance of Totten Glacier indicated by inland bed erosion

Abstract

Climate variations cause ice sheets to retreat and advance, raising or lowering sea level by metres to decametres. The basic relationship is unambiguous, but the timing, magnitude and sources of sea-level change remain unclear; in particular, the contribution of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) is ill defined, restricting our appreciation of potential future change. Several lines of evidence suggest possible collapse of the Totten Glacier into interior basins during past warm periods, most notably the Pliocene epoch1,2,3,4, causing several metres of sea-level rise. However, the structure and long-term evolution of the ice sheet in this region have been understood insufficiently to constrain past ice-sheet extents. Here we show that deep ice-sheet erosion—enough to expose basement rocks—has occurred in two regions: the head of the Totten Glacier, within 150 kilometres of today’s grounding line; and deep within the Sabrina Subglacial Basin, 350–550 kilometres from this grounding line. Our results, based on ICECAP aerogeophysical data, demarcate the marginal zones of two distinct quasi-stable EAIS configurations, corresponding to the ‘modern-scale’ ice sheet (with a marginal zone near the present ice-sheet margin) and the retreated ice sheet (with the marginal zone located far inland). The transitional region of 200–250 kilometres in width is less eroded, suggesting shorter-lived exposure to eroding conditions during repeated retreat–advance events, which are probably driven by ocean-forced instabilities. Representative ice-sheet models indicate that the global sea-level increase resulting from retreat in this sector can be up to 0.9 metres in the modern-scale configuration, and exceeds 2 metres in the retreated configuration.

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Figure 1: Interpretation of erosion in the Sabrina Subglacial Basin region.
Figure 3: Ice-sheet models with differing climate forcings.
Figure 2: Gravity model along flight line R06Ea.

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Acknowledgements

Collection of ICECAP data was supported by: National Science Foundation grant PLR-0733025; National Aeronautics and Space Administration grants NNX09AR52G, NNG10HPO6C and NNX11AD33G (Operation Ice Bridge and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act); Australian Antarctic Division projects 3013 and 4077; National Environment and Research Council grant NE/D003733/1; the Jackson School of Geosciences; the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation; and the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Programme through the Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC). Ice-sheet modelling was funded under contract VUW1203 of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Fund. We thank S. Jamieson for comments and for supplying model images for comparison. This is the University of Texas Institute of Geophysics contribution 2950.

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A.R.A.A. undertook data processing, analysis and modelling and wrote the paper. D.D.B., T.D.v.O. and M.J.S. coordinated and planned the fieldwork and led the ICECAP programme. J.L.R., D.A.Y. and J.S.G. undertook the field program and implemented data collection, quality control and initial data processing. N.R.G. conducted the ice-sheet modelling. All authors contributed significantly to interpretation and discussion of the data and manuscript preparation.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. R. A. Aitken.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 ICECAP geophysical data.

a, Gravity disturbance data. b, Magnetic intensity data. Dashed red lines indicate interpreted basement faults15. Solid, dashed and dotted blue lines indicate the erosion interpretation as shown in Fig. 1.

Extended Data Figure 2 SSSB base morphology.

The map shows the relationship of the SSSB base morphology with basement faults (dashed black lines), and the locations of the representative model profiles: flight lines Y07b (Extended Data Fig. 3), R03Ea (Extended Data Fig. 4), R06Ea (Fig. 2), R08Eb (Extended Data Fig. 5) and GL0092a (Extended Data Fig. 6). Arrows indicate the right of the associated model figure in each case. The interpreted erosion boundaries are also shown, in grey, with solid, dashed and dotted lines as in Fig. 1.

Extended Data Figure 3 Gravity model along flight line Y07b.

a, The observed and calculated gravity disturbance, including model components from ice and topography, the deep crust and Moho (‘mantle and lower crust’), and the sedimentary basins. b, The model, also showing estimates of depth to magnetic basement, the tensioned spline fit, and cross-ties with other models. Ice, sedimentary rock and basement densities are as per Fig. 2. c, SSSB thickness and present-day surface ice velocity (vertically flipped). Basin thickness is shown for a density contrast of 270 kg m−3 (2,400 kg m−3), and a thickness range for density contrast of 170–470 kg m−3 (2,200–2,500 kg m−3). Average error in ice-sheet velocity on this line is 8.4 m yr−1 (ref. 12).

Extended Data Figure 4 Gravity model along flight line R03Ea.

a, The observed and calculated gravity disturbance, including model components from ice and topography, the deep crust and Moho (‘mantle and lower crust’), and the sedimentary basins. b, The model, also showing estimates of depth to magnetic basement, the tensioned spline fit, and cross-ties with other models. Ice, sedimentary rock and basement densities are as per Fig. 2. c, SSSB thickness and present-day surface ice velocity (vertically flipped). Basin thickness is shown for a density contrast of 270 kg m−3 (2,400 kg m−3), and a thickness range for density contrast of 170–470 kg m−3 (2,200–2,500 kg m−3). Average error in ice-sheet velocity on this line is 9.7 m yr−1 (ref. 12). TAH, Terre Adelie highlands.

Extended Data Figure 5 Gravity model along flight line R08Eb.

a, The observed and calculated gravity disturbance, including model components from ice and topography, the deep crust and Moho (‘mantle and lower crust’), and the sedimentary basins. b, The model, also showing depth to magnetic basement estimates, the tensioned spline fit, and cross-ties with other models. Ice, sedimentary rock and basement densities are as per Fig. 2. c, SSSB thickness and current surface ice velocity (vertically flipped). Basin thickness is shown for a density-contrast of 270 kg m−3 (2,400 kg m−3), and the thickness range for density contrast of 170 to 470 kg m−3 (2,200 to 2,500 kg m−3). Average error in ice-sheet velocity on this line is 8.6 m yr−1 (ref. 12). HC, Highland C.

Extended Data Figure 6 Gravity model along flight line GL0092a.

a, The observed and calculated gravity disturbance, including model components from ice and topography, the deep crust and Moho (‘mantle and lower crust’), and the sedimentary basins. b, The model, also showing estimates of depth to magnetic basement, the tensioned spline fit, and cross-ties with other models. Ice, sedimentary rock and basement densities are as per Fig. 2. c, SSSB thickness and present-day surface ice velocity (vertically flipped). Basin thickness is shown for a density contrast of 270 kg m−3 (2,400 kg m−3), and a thickness range for density contrast of 170–470 kg m−3 (2,200–2,500 kg m−3). Average error in ice-sheet velocity on this line is 10.6 m yr−1 (ref. 12). HB, Highland B; ASB, Aurora Subglacial Basin.

Extended Data Figure 7 Additional ice-sheet models.

Ice-sheet surface and bed elevations and basal velocity contours are shown after a long-term, 20-kyr run under constant climate forcing. a, With air and ocean temperatures identical to today’s (dTa = 0 °C and dTo = 0 °C), the ice-sheet margin is located near its present location, and high basal velocities are focused in region A. This model includes ice shelves, which also have high basal velocity. b, With dTa = +15 °C and dTo = +5 °C, the ice-sheet margin has retreated deep into the ASB and is preserved mainly on inland highlands. Sea-level contributions are defined for all Antarctica (dVA) and for the ASB/SSB sector (dVl), denoted by the green region in the inset.

Extended Data Figure 8 Model intersection misfits for the gravity models.

The dots show the value in metres of each tensioned spline mis-tie after model levelling was applied. Levelling applied a constant value to the base of the sedimentary basin on each line to achieve an optimal minimum-norm fit to all cross-ties. Rugged subglacial topography (background) is the main source of non-systematic model errors because of three-dimensional effects.

Extended Data Figure 9 Gravity models including basement density variations.

a, Line R03Ea; b, line R06Ea; c, line R08Eb. Each top panel shows the observed and calculated gravity disturbances. Each bottom panel shows the revised model incorporating basement density contrasts between major crustal blocks. The vertical long-dashed lines indicate the major faults. The dotted line indicates the basin structure with a homogenous basement density of 2,670 kg m−3, as shown in previous figures. Fault locations are derived from the interpretation shown in Extended Data Fig. 1. The fault dip was not tested, as it is a minor component of the field. Blocks are changed by ±25 kg m−3 in accordance with models of the comparable region in Australia. Italicized numbers indicate the basement block densities that generated the flattest basin base. Thickness differences are substantial in places, but the overall pattern of basin thickness is preserved. A/B, B/C and so on indicate the interpreted erosional regions as defined in previous figures.

Extended Data Table 1 Zonal characteristics of topography and sedimentary rock thickness

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Aitken, A., Roberts, J., Ommen, T. et al. Repeated large-scale retreat and advance of Totten Glacier indicated by inland bed erosion. Nature 533, 385–389 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17447

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