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

Nature volume 540, pages 256260 (08 December 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geology and Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont 05405, USA

    • Paul R. Bierman
    •  & Lee B. Corbett
  2. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02467, USA

    • Jeremy D. Shakun
  3. Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California 94550, USA

    • Susan R. Zimmerman
  4. Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, London SW7 2AZ, UK

    • Dylan H. Rood
  5. Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, East Kilbride G75 0QF, UK

    • Dylan H. Rood

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paul R. Bierman.

Reviewer Information

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

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    Supplementary Data

    This file contains all relevant isotopic data.

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