Letter | Published:

Greenland was nearly ice-free for extended periods during the Pleistocene

Nature volume 540, pages 252255 (08 December 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

The Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) contains the equivalent of 7.4 metres of global sea-level rise1. Its stability in our warming climate is therefore a pressing concern. However, the sparse proxy evidence of the palaeo-stability of the GIS means that its history is controversial (compare refs 2 and 3 to ref. 4). Here we show that Greenland was deglaciated for extended periods during the Pleistocene epoch (from 2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago), based on new measurements of cosmic-ray-produced beryllium and aluminium isotopes (10Be and 26Al) in a bedrock core from beneath an ice core near the GIS summit. Models indicate that when this bedrock site is ice-free, any remaining ice is concentrated in the eastern Greenland highlands and the GIS is reduced to less than ten per cent of its current volume. Our results narrow the spectrum of possible GIS histories: the longest period of stability of the present ice sheet that is consistent with the measurements is 1.1 million years, assuming that this was preceded by more than 280,000 years of ice-free conditions. Other scenarios, in which Greenland was ice-free during any or all Pleistocene interglacials, may be more realistic. Our observations are incompatible with most existing model simulations that present a continuously existing Pleistocene GIS. Future simulations of the GIS should take into account that Greenland was nearly ice-free for extended periods under Pleistocene climate forcing.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge help from the National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL) and thank the GISP2 steering committee for providing the bedrock core samples. J.M.S. acknowledges support by the Lamont Climate Center and the Comer Family Foundation. R.B.A. acknowledges support by the NSF (AGS 1338832), as do J.M.S., J.P.B. and N.E.Y. (PLR Arctic System Science Program number 1503959). We thank J. Fyke for assistance in producing Fig. 1b. G.B. acknowledges support from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. M.W.C. acknowledges support from the US National Science Foundation, grant EAR-1153689. The pioneering cosmogenic-nuclide study of the GISP2 bedrock core under the lead of Kuni Nishiizumi in the late 1990s motivated our study. This is LDEO publication number 8068.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Geochemistry, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • Joerg M. Schaefer
    • , Robert C. Finkel
    • , Nicolas E. Young
    •  & Roseanne Schwartz
  2. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • Joerg M. Schaefer
  3. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California 95064, USA

    • Robert C. Finkel
  4. Berkeley Geochronology Center, 2455 Ridge Road, Berkeley, California 94709, USA

    • Greg Balco
  5. Department of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

    • Richard B. Alley
  6. Department of Physics and Astronomy, Purdue University, 525 Northwestern Avenue, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, USA

    • Marc W. Caffee
  7. Department of Geology, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York 14260, USA

    • Jason P. Briner
  8. US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755, USA

    • Anthony J. Gow

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Contributions

J.M.S. and R.C.F. initiated and coordinated the project, were in charge of the data production and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. G.B. provided the data analysis. R.B.A. participated in the GISP2 project, and provided glaciological expertise and model perspective. A.J.G. was part of the first scientist team at the GISP2 camp when the bedrock core was retrieved, examined the rock core and provided stratigraphic ice-bedrock expertise. M.W.C. measured the samples for Al isotopes. R.S. processed all the rock samples and did the Al and Be extraction. J.P.B. and N.E.Y. provided Arctic glacier expertise and prepared final figures. All authors read and edited multiple versions of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joerg M. Schaefer.

Reviewer Information

Nature thanks P.-H. Blard, G. Milne and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature20146

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