Letter | Published:

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

Nature volume 533, pages 385389 (19 May 2016) | Download Citation


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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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.

Author information


  1. School of Earth and Environment, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia 6008, Australia

    • A. R. A. Aitken
  2. Australian Antarctic Division, Kingston, Tasmania 7050, Australia

    • J. L. Roberts
    •  & T. D. van Ommen
  3. Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania 7005, Australia

    • J. L. Roberts
    •  & T. D. van Ommen
  4. University of Texas Institute for Geophysics, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78758, USA

    • D. A. Young
    • , J. S. Greenbaum
    •  & D. D. Blankenship
  5. Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6140, New Zealand

    • N. R. Golledge
  6. GNS Science, Avalon, Lower Hutt 5011, New Zealand

    • N. R. Golledge
  7. The Grantham Institute and Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, UK

    • M. J. Siegert


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. R. A. Aitken.

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