A persistent and dynamic East Greenland Ice Sheet over the past 7.5 million years


Climate models show that ice-sheet melt will dominate sea-level rise over the coming centuries, but our understanding of ice-sheet variations before the last interglacial 125,000 years ago remains fragmentary. This is because terrestrial deposits of ancient glacial and interglacial periods1,2,3 are overrun and eroded by more recent glacial advances, and are therefore usually rare, isolated and poorly dated4. In contrast, material shed almost continuously from continents is preserved as marine sediment that can be analysed to infer the time-varying state of major ice sheets. Here we show that the East Greenland Ice Sheet existed over the past 7.5 million years, as indicated by beryllium and aluminium isotopes (10Be and 26Al) in quartz sand removed by deep, ongoing glacial erosion on land and deposited offshore in the marine sedimentary record5,6. During the early Pleistocene epoch, ice cover in East Greenland was dynamic; in contrast, East Greenland was mostly ice-covered during the mid-to-late Pleistocene. The isotope record we present is consistent with distinct signatures of changes in ice sheet behaviour coincident with major climate transitions. Although our data are continuous, they are from low-deposition-rate sites and sourced only from East Greenland. Consequently, the signal of extensive deglaciation during short, intense interglacials could be missed or blurred, and we cannot distinguish between a remnant ice sheet in the East Greenland highlands and a diminished continent-wide ice sheet. A clearer constraint on the behaviour of the ice sheet during past and, ultimately, future interglacial warmth could be produced by 10Be and 26Al records from a coring site with a higher deposition rate. Nonetheless, our analysis challenges the possibility of complete and extended deglaciation over the past several million years.

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Figure 1: Compilation of findings that constrain the long-term history of the GIS.
Figure 2: Cosmogenic-nuclide systematics and sensitivity to erosion, burial, exposure and mixing.
Figure 3: Map of Greenland.
Figure 4: Seven and a half million years of sediment cosmogenic-nuclide values from offshore East Greenland.


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Research supported by NSF ARC-1023191. A. Nelson prepared some samples. W. Hale and the Bremen Core Repository facilitated core sampling. G. Balco provided input on muon production. We thank K. St John for providing ODP site 918 mass accumulation rate data, B. de Boer for ice sheet model output, W. Huang for running foraminifer stable isotope samples, and S. Xu and the staff of the SUERC AMS laboratory for support during 26Al measurements. This is LLNL-JRNL-701099.

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P.R.B. and J.D.S. designed the experiment. J.D.S. oversaw core sampling. P.R.B. and L.B.C. did and oversaw laboratory work. D.H.R., S.R.Z. and P.R.B. performed isotopic analyses. P.R.B., J.D.S., L.B.C. and D.H.R. interpreted the data and all authors contributed to the preparation of the paper.

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Correspondence to Paul R. Bierman.

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Nature thanks D. Dahl-Jensen, D. Granger and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Age–depth models for Sites 918 and 987.

Chronostratigraphic constraints19,40 are identified by symbols. (mbsf, metres below seafloor.)

Extended Data Figure 2 Site 918 planktonic δ18O stratigraphy.

a, The global benthic LR04 δ18O stack on its timescale20. VPDB, Vienna Pee-Dee Belemnite standard. b, A planktonic (N. pachyderma, left-coiling) δ18O record from ODP site 646 off southern Greenland, also on the global benthic δ18O stack timescale71. c, The planktonic (N. pachyderma, left-coiling) δ18O record from Site 918 on its depth scale. Notable interglacials in the LR04 stack and their interpreted correlatives at Site 918 are numbered, and the location of the Brunhes–Matuyama magnetic reversal in each record is denoted by the vertical dotted black line. The well resolved ODP site 646 δ18O record is shown to provide a nearby planktonic record for comparison to Site 918.

Extended Data Figure 3 Comparing Site 918 decay-corrected 10Be concentrations to Site 918 sand (>63 μm) concentrations and marine δ18O over the past 7.5 Myr.

All data have been binned to the same age intervals as the 10Be data. Coarse fraction indicates sand. The r2 and P values quantify the correlations of the 10Be concentrations with the sand concentrations and marine δ18O values.

Extended Data Figure 4 A simple forward model of Greenlandic cosmogenic-nuclide concentrations and ratios over the past 5 million years.

ae, Simulated (coloured lines) 26Al/10Be ratios (a) and 10Be concentrations (b) of glacially eroded material from a box model with ice extent parameterized as a function of GIS extent from a full ice-sheet model70 (c), marine δ18O (ref. 20) (d), and sea level69 (e). The colours of the simulated records in a and b correspond to the associated drivers of the model in c, d and e. The ice extent parameterization is represented by the blue shading in c, d and e. Sites 918 and 987 cosmogenic-nuclide records are shown by 1σ grey shading in a and b, and simulated records have been binned to the same resolution. f, 26Al/10Be–10Be relationships in the simulated (colours) and ODP Site 918 (black) records. Error bars are 1σ. See Methods for model details and https://github.com/shakunj/Bierman-et-al-2016-Nature for computer code.

Extended Data Figure 5 Fully referenced version of Fig. 2. NH, Northern Hemisphere.

Data are from refs 1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17, 19 and 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87.

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Bierman, P., Shakun, J., Corbett, L. et al. A persistent and dynamic East Greenland Ice Sheet over the past 7.5 million years. Nature 540, 256–260 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature20147

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