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Initiation and long-term instability of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet


Antarctica’s continental-scale ice sheets have evolved over the past 50 million years1,2,3,4. However, the dearth of ice-proximal geological records5,6,7,8 limits our understanding of past East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) behaviour and thus our ability to evaluate its response to ongoing environmental change. The EAIS is marine-terminating and grounded below sea level within the Aurora subglacial basin, indicating that this catchment, which drains ice to the Sabrina Coast, may be sensitive to climate perturbations9,10,11. Here we show, using marine geological and geophysical data from the continental shelf seaward of the Aurora subglacial basin, that marine-terminating glaciers existed at the Sabrina Coast by the early to middle Eocene epoch. This finding implies the existence of substantial ice volume in the Aurora subglacial basin before continental-scale ice sheets were established about 34 million years ago1,2,3,4. Subsequently, ice advanced across and retreated from the Sabrina Coast continental shelf at least 11 times during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs. Tunnel valleys12 associated with half of these glaciations indicate that a surface-meltwater-rich sub-polar glacial system existed under climate conditions similar to those anticipated with continued anthropogenic warming10,11. Cooling since the late Miocene13 resulted in an expanded polar EAIS and a limited glacial response to Pliocene warmth in the Aurora subglacial basin catchment14,15,16. Geological records from the Sabrina Coast shelf indicate that, in addition to ocean temperature, atmospheric temperature and surface-derived meltwater influenced East Antarctic ice mass balance under warmer-than-present climate conditions. Our results imply a dynamic EAIS response with continued anthropogenic warming and suggest that the EAIS contribution to future global sea-level projections10,11,15,17 may be under-estimated.

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Figure 1: ASB elevations and Sabrina Coast bathymetry.
Figure 2: Sabrina Coast seismic and piston core biostratigraphy.
Figure 3: Composite Sabrina Coast section with glacial surfaces and climate indicators.


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We thank the NBP14-02 science party, the ECO captain and crew, and the ASC technical staff aboard the RV/IB N. B. Palmer. NBP14-02 was supported by the National Science Foundation (grants NSF PLR-1143836, PLR-1143837, PLR-1143843, PLR-1430550 and PLR-1048343) and a GSA graduate student research grant (to C.S.). We thank the Antarctic Marine Geology Research Facility staff at Florida State University for sampling assistance and E. Thomas, M. Katz, F. Sangiorni, P. Bijl and S. Manchester for discussions. This is UTIG Contribution #3137.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.P.S.G. and A.E.S. contributed equally to this work, co-writing the manuscript with input from all authors. D.D.B., S.P.S.G., A.L. and A.E.S. conceived the study. B.F., R.F., S.P.S.G., A.L., A.E.S., C.S. and the shipboard scientific party collected geophysical data and samples on USAP cruise NBP14-02. All authors contributed to the analyses and interpretation of the results.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sean P. S. Gulick.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks K. Billups, A. Bruch, S. Greenwood and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Uninterpreted NBP14-02 seismic profiles with line crossings and coring sites indicated.

a, Line 13 with piston core sites JPC-30 and JPC-31 and formation penetration depths indicated by red lines. b, Line 17 with core sites JPC-55 and JPC-54 and formation penetration depths indicated by red lines. c, Line 07 showing intersection with Line 10. d, Line 10 showing intersections with Line 07 and Line 21. e, Line 21 showing intersection with Line 10. CDP, common depth point.

Extended Data Figure 2 Site location and sedimentological, geochemical and palaeontological data from piston core NBP14-02 JPC-55 plotted versus depth.

a, Chirp record of JPC-55 site; location and penetration indicated (red line); site coordinates and multibeam depth (MB) included. b, Gastropod steinkern (70–72 cm below sea floor). c, Siderite concretion with monocot stem nucleus (118–125 cm below sea floor). d, Close-up of monocot stem. e, JPC-55 lithologic unit, photograph, X-ray radiograph, graphic lithology, coring disturbance, sedimentary structures, lithologic accessories (such as fossils and diagenetic features), sample locations, age, benthic foraminifers per 30 cm3 sediment, magnetic susceptibility (in SI units), gamma ray attenuation (GRA) bulk density (grams per cubic centimetre of sediment), bulk sediment δ13Corg (per mil; VPDB‰), and carbon/nitrogen (C/N) plotted versus depth in centimetres below sea floor (cmbsf; Supplementary Information).

Extended Data Figure 3 Site location and sedimentological and geochemical data from piston core NBP14-02 JPC-54 plotted versus depth.

a, JPC-54 lithologic unit, photograph, X-ray radiograph, graphic lithology, coring disturbance, sedimentary structures, lithologic accessories, sample locations, age, magnetic susceptibility (in SI units; Supplementary Information), GRA bulk density (grams per cubic centimetre of sediment), and bulk sediment δ13Corg (per mil; VPDB‰) plotted versus depth in centimetres below sea floor (cmbsf). b, Chirp record of JPC-54 site; location and penetration indicated (red line); site coordinates and multibeam depth included.

Extended Data Figure 4 Site location and sedimentological data from piston cores NBP14-02 JPC-30 and JPC-31 plotted versus depth.

a, Chirp record of JPC-30 site; location and penetration indicated (red line); site coordinates and multibeam depth included. b, JPC-30 lithologic unit, photograph, X-ray radiograph, graphic lithology, coring disturbance, sedimentary structures, lithologic accessories, sample locations, age, magnetic susceptibility (in SI units; see Supplementary Information), and GRA bulk density (grams per cubic centimetre of sediment) plotted versus depth in centimetres below sea floor (cmbsf). c, Chirp record of JPC-31 site; location, and penetration indicated (red line). d, JPC-31 lithology, age and physical properties as above.

Extended Data Figure 5 Benthic foraminifers from piston core NBP14-02 JPC-55

. a, Hoeglundina elegans (sample depth 76–78 cm below sea floor). b, SEM image of Hoeglundina elegans (76–78 cm below sea floor). c, Ceratobulimina sp. (70–72 cm below sea floor). d, Ceratobulimina sp. (70–72 cm below sea floor). e, SEM of Ceratobulimina sp. (70–72 cm below sea floor). f, SEM image of Gyroidinoides globosus (110–113 cm below sea floor). g, SEM image of Gyroidinoides globosus (110–113 cm below sea floor). h, Gyroidinoides globosus with pyrite (136–138 cm below sea floor). i, Gyroidinoides globosus with zoom-in of umbilicus on the right; pyrite is visible on the lower right side of the test (136–138 cm below sea floor). j, Palmula sp. (136–138 cm below sea floor; test >450 μm).

Extended Data Figure 6 Siliceous microfossils from piston core NBP14-02 JPC-31 diatomite sample.

a, Thalassiosira torokina. b, Thalassiosira oliverana var. sparsa. c, Actinocyclus ingens var. ovalis. d, Coscinodiscus marginatus. e, Azpeitia sp. 1. f, Actinocyclus sp. g, Actinocyclus sp. h, Shionodiscus tetraoestrupii. i, Shionodiscus tetraoestrupii. j, Shionodiscus oestrupii. k, Denticulopsis delicate. l, Denticulopsis simonsenii/D. vulgaris. m, Denticulopsis simonsenii/D. vulgaris. n, Denticulopsis delicate. o, Denticulopsis simonsenii/D. vulgaris. p, Rouxia naviculoides. q, Fragilariopsis praecurta. r, Fragilariopsis sp. 1. s, Trinacria excavate. t, Rhizosolenia hebetate. u, Eucampia antarctica var. recta. v, Distephanus speculum speculum f. varians. Sample taken from 43–45 cm below sea floor.

Extended Data Table 1 NBP14-02 piston core locations, water depths, and recovered core lengths
Extended Data Table 2 Piston core NBP14-02 JPC-55 and JPC-54 raw terrestrial pollen counts
Extended Data Table 3 Piston core NBP14-02 JPC-55 raw benthic foraminifer counts

Supplementary information

Supplementary Data

This file contains Supplementary Data for sediment cores NBP14-02 JPC-30, -31, -54, and -55. The data file contains all sedimentary data plotted in Extended Data Figures 2-4. Physical properties data for JPC-30, -31, -54, and -55 are in four separate worksheets, listed by core ID. Bulk organic geochemical data from JPC-54 and -55 are in two separate worksheets, listed by core ID. (XLSX 30 kb)

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Gulick, S., Shevenell, A., Montelli, A. et al. Initiation and long-term instability of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Nature 552, 225–229 (2017).

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