Hydrologic cycling over Antarctica during the middle Miocene warming


From 20 to 15 million years (Myr) ago, a period of global warmth reversed the previous ice growth on Antarctica, leading to the retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the contraction of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet1,2. Pollen recovered from the Antarctic shelf indicates the presence of substantial vegetation on the margins of Antarctica 15.7 Myr ago3. However, the hydrologic regime that supported this vegetation is unclear. Here we combine leaf-wax hydrogen isotopes and pollen assemblages from Ross Sea sediments with model simulations to reconstruct vegetation, precipitation and temperature in Antarctica during the middle Miocene. Average leaf-wax stable hydrogen isotope (δD) values from 20 to 15.5 Myr ago translate to average δD values of −50‰ for precipitation at the margins of Antarctica, higher than modern values. We find that vegetation persisted from 20 to 15.5 Myr ago, with peak expansions 16.4 and 15.7 Myr ago coinciding with peak global warmth4 and vegetation growth5. Our model experiments are consistent with a local moisture source in the Southern Ocean6. Combining proxy measurements with climate simulations, we conclude that summer temperatures were about 11 °C warmer than today, and that there was a substantial increase in moisture delivery to the Antarctic coast.

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Figure 1: Geochemical and palynological results from AND-2A core.
Figure 2: T– δD relationship for Antarctica comparing modern versus Miocene.
Figure 3: Miocene climate records.


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This research used samples acquired by the ANDRILL project and provided by the Antarctic Marine Geology Research Facility at Florida State University. The ANDRILL project is a multinational collaboration involving the Antarctic programmes of Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the USA. The Antarctic Marine Geology Research Facility is sponsored by the US National Science Foundation. Financial support for this research was provided by the US National Science Foundation (ANT-0342484 to D. Harwood and R. Levy, subawards 25-0550-0001-155 to S.J.F. and 25-0550-0001-137 to S.W., ANT-1048343 to S.W. and EAR-090919 to P. Molnar for J-E.L.). This material is based on work supported by the US National Science Foundation under cooperative agreement no. 0342484 through subawards administered and issued by the ANDRILL Science Management Office at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, as part of the ANDRILL US Science Support program. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US National Science Foundation.. We acknowledge laboratory assistance from M. Rincon, M. Cheetham, Z. Zhang and L. Foersterling and discussions with D. Harwood, A. Tripati, A. Kahmen, J. West,J. Tierney, P. Bart, R. Askin, H. Bao, A. Sessions, G. Schmidt and J. Hayes. The simulations were carried out on the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences’ Dell cluster at the California Institute of Technology, and J-E.L. thanks T. Schneider, T. Merlis, and Z. Tan for their help in incorporating isotopes into GRAM and support by the NASA ROSES Aura Science Team NNH07ZDA001N-AST07-0069.

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S.J.F. conducted the organic geochemistry and δD analyses. S.W. directed the palynology. J-E.L. conducted the model experiments. S.J.F., S.W. and J-E.L. contributed to interpreting the data and writing the paper. All authors contributed to discussions of this work.

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Correspondence to Sarah J. Feakins.

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Feakins, S., Warny, S. & Lee, J. Hydrologic cycling over Antarctica during the middle Miocene warming. Nature Geosci 5, 557–560 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1498

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