Letter | Published:

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

Nature volume 552, pages 225229 (14 December 2017) | Download Citation


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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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

Author notes

    • Aleksandr Montelli
    • , Catherine Smith
    •  & Bruce Frederick

    Present addresses: Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 1ER, UK (A.M.); International Ocean Discovery Program, Texas A&M University, 1000 Discovery Drive, College Station, Texas 77845, USA (C.S.); Department of Geology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, USA (B.F.).

    • Sean P. S. Gulick
    •  & Amelia E. Shevenell

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Institute for Geophysics, Jackson School of Geosciences, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78758, USA

    • Sean P. S. Gulick
    • , Aleksandr Montelli
    • , Rodrigo Fernandez
    • , Bruce Frederick
    •  & Donald D. Blankenship
  2. College of Marine Science, University of South Florida, Saint Petersburg, Florida 33701, USA

    • Amelia E. Shevenell
    •  & Catherine Smith
  3. Department of Geology and Geophysics and Museum of Natural Science, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803, USA

    • Sophie Warny
  4. School of Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton, Southampton S014 3ZH, UK

    • Steven M. Bohaty
  5. Antarctic Marine Geological Research Facility, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306, USA

    • Charlotte Sjunneskog
  6. Geology Department, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York 13346, USA

    • Amy Leventer


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sean P. S. Gulick.

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

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    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.

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