Letter | Published:

Centennial-scale Holocene climate variations amplified by Antarctic Ice Sheet discharge

Nature volume 541, pages 7276 (05 January 2017) | Download Citation

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Proxy-based indicators of past climate change show that current global climate models systematically underestimate Holocene-epoch climate variability on centennial to multi-millennial timescales, with the mismatch increasing for longer periods1,2,3,4,5. Proposed explanations for the discrepancy include ocean–atmosphere coupling that is too weak in models6, insufficient energy cascades from smaller to larger spatial and temporal scales7, or that global climate models do not consider slow climate feedbacks related to the carbon cycle or interactions between ice sheets and climate4. Such interactions, however, are known to have strongly affected centennial- to orbital-scale climate variability during past glaciations8,9,10,11, and are likely to be important in future climate change12,13,14. Here we show that fluctuations in Antarctic Ice Sheet discharge caused by relatively small changes in subsurface ocean temperature can amplify multi-centennial climate variability regionally and globally, suggesting that a dynamic Antarctic Ice Sheet may have driven climate fluctuations during the Holocene. We analysed high-temporal-resolution records of iceberg-rafted debris derived from the Antarctic Ice Sheet, and performed both high-spatial-resolution ice-sheet modelling of the Antarctic Ice Sheet and multi-millennial global climate model simulations. Ice-sheet responses to decadal-scale ocean forcing appear to be less important, possibly indicating that the future response of the Antarctic Ice Sheet will be governed more by long-term anthropogenic warming combined with multi-centennial natural variability than by annual or decadal climate oscillations.

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Change history

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This work was supported by a grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (award number NA15OAR4310239 to P.B. and A.S.), the Antarctic Glaciology Program of the National Science Foundation (grant number 1043517 to P.U.C.), the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Marsden Fund (grant number VUW1203 to N.R.G.) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG grant number We2039/8-1 to M.E.W.). We thank L. Menviel for providing us with the LOVECLIM-based Southern Ocean subsurface temperature data. Development of PISM is supported by NASA grants NNX13AM16G and NNX13AK27G.

Author information

Author notes

    • Pepijn Bakker

    Present address: MARUM Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, Bremen, Germany.


  1. College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97331, USA

    • Pepijn Bakker
    • , Peter U. Clark
    •  & Andreas Schmittner
  2. Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

    • Nicholas R. Golledge
  3. GNS Science, Avalon, Lower Hutt, New Zealand

    • Nicholas R. Golledge
  4. Steinmann Institute, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany

    • Michael E. Weber
  5. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Michael E. Weber


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P.B. and A.S. designed the study. P.B. performed the UVic climate model simulations and analysed the results. M.E.W. constructed the IBRD stack. N.R.G. performed the PISM ice-sheet simulations. P.B. and P.U.C. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pepijn Bakker.

Reviewer Information

Nature thanks P. Valdes and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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