Abstract

Glaciological and oceanographic observations coupled with numerical models show that warm Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW) incursions onto the West Antarctic continental shelf cause melting of the undersides of floating ice shelves. Because these ice shelves buttress glaciers feeding into them, their ocean-induced thinning is driving Antarctic ice-sheet retreat today. Here we present a multi-proxy data based reconstruction of variability in CDW inflow to the Amundsen Sea sector, the most vulnerable part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, during the Holocene epoch (from 11.7 thousand years ago to the present). The chemical compositions of foraminifer shells and benthic foraminifer assemblages in marine sediments indicate that enhanced CDW upwelling, controlled by the latitudinal position of the Southern Hemisphere westerly winds, forced deglaciation of this sector from at least 10,400 years ago until 7,500 years ago—when an ice-shelf collapse may have caused rapid ice-sheet thinning further upstream—and since the 1940s. These results increase confidence in the predictive capability of current ice-sheet models.

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Acknowledgements

This study is part of the Polar Science for Planet Earth Programme of the British Antarctic Survey and the PACES II (Polar Regions and Coasts in the changing Earth System) programme of the Alfred-Wegener-Institut. It was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), NERC grant NE/M013081/1 and the Helmholtz Association. This work was also funded (in part) by The European Research Council (ERC grant 2010-NEWLOG ADG-267931 HE). We thank the captain, crew, shipboard scientists and support staff participating in RV Polarstern expeditions ANT-XXIII/4 and ANT-XXVI/3, and are grateful to R. Downey, T. Williams, V. Peck, H. Blagbrough, R. Fröhlking and S. Wiebe for their assistance. Furthermore, we thank D. Hodgson, D. Vaughan and P. Dutrieux for discussions, and S. Schmidtko for providing data.

Author information

Author notes

    • Henry Elderfield

    Deceased.

Affiliations

  1. British Antarctic Survey, High Cross, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

    • Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand
    • , James A. Smith
    • , Stephen J. Roberts
    •  & Robert D. Larter
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, Cambridge University, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EQ, UK

    • David A. Hodell
    • , Mervyn Greaves
    •  & Henry Elderfield
  3. Department of Geology, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

    • Christopher R. Poole
    •  & Mark Williams
  4. Department of Earth Sciences, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Christopher R. Poole
  5. Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE, UK

    • Sev Kender
  6. British Geological Survey, Keyworth, Nottingham NG12 5GG, UK

    • Sev Kender
  7. Center for Permafrost (CENPERM), Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, DK-1350 Copenhagen K, Denmark

    • Thorbjørn Joest Andersen
  8. Department of Geosciences, University of Tromsø — The Arctic University of Norway, N-9037 Tromsø, Norway

    • Patrycja E. Jernas
  9. Alfred-Wegener-Institut Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung, Department of Geosciences, Am Alten Hafen 26, D-27568 Bremerhaven, Germany

    • Johann P. Klages
    • , Karsten Gohl
    •  & Gerhard Kuhn

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Contributions

C.-D.H. conceived the idea for the study and together with J.A.S., G.K. and R.D.L. wrote the manuscript. G.K., C.-D.H. and K.G. collected the PS69 sediment core and together with J.A.S., P.E.J. and J.P.K. the PS75 cores. C.-D.H., J.A.S. and S.J.R. developed the 14C age models for the PS75 cores. R.D.L. designed Fig. 1. T.J.A. conducted the 210Pb measurements on the PS69 core and provided its age model. G.K., C.-D.H., J.A.S., J.P.K. and P.E.J. undertook the sedimentological analyses. D.A.H. measured stable isotopes on the foraminifer shells, while M.G. and H.E. analysed the trace metals. C.R.P., S.K. and M.W. analysed the foraminifer assemblages. All co-authors commented on the manuscript and provided input to its final version.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Claus-Dieter Hillenbrand.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks R. McKay and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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