Changes in atmospheric circulation over the past five decades have enhanced the wind-driven inflow of warm ocean water onto the Antarctic continental shelf, where it melts ice shelves from below1,2,3. Atmospheric circulation changes have also caused rapid warming4 over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and contributed to declining sea-ice cover in the adjacent Amundsen–Bellingshausen seas5. It is unknown whether these changes are part of a longer-term trend. Here, we use water-isotope (δ18O) data from an array of ice-core records to place recent West Antarctic climate changes in the context of the past two millennia. We find that the δ18O of West Antarctic precipitation has increased significantly in the past 50 years, in parallel with the trend in temperature, and was probably more elevated during the 1990s than at any other time during the past 200 years. However, δ18O anomalies comparable to those of recent decades occur about 1% of the time over the past 2,000 years. General circulation model simulations suggest that recent trends in δ18O and climate in West Antarctica cannot be distinguished from decadal variability that originates in the tropics. We conclude that the uncertain trajectory of tropical climate variability represents a significant source of uncertainty in projections of West Antarctic climate and ice-sheet change.

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This work was supported by the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs (grant numbers 0537930, 0837988, 0963924 and 1043092 to E.J.S.; 05379853 and 1043167 to J.W.C.W.; 0944730 to S.B.R.; 0230396, 0440817, 0944348 and 0944266 to K.C.T.; 0096305, 9316564, 0096299, 0424589, 0439589, 063740, 063650 and 0837883 to P.A.M.; 0838871 to D.P.S.). NCAR is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. We thank A. Orsi, J. Bautista and J. Flaherty.

Author information

Author notes

    • Peter D. Neff

    Present address: Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6140, New Zealand

    • Ailie J. E. Gallant

    Present address: School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria 3800, Australia


  1. Quaternary Research Center and Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Eric J. Steig
    • , Qinghua Ding
    • , Marcel Küttel
    • , Peter D. Neff
    • , Ailie J. E. Gallant
    • , Spruce W. Schoenemann
    • , Bradley R. Markle
    • , Tyler J. Fudge
    • , Andrew J. Schauer
    •  & Rebecca P. Teel
  2. Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80303, USA

    • James W. C. White
    •  & Bruce H. Vaughn
  3. Department of Geological Sciences, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah 84602, USA

    • Summer B. Rupper
    • , Landon Burgener
    •  & Jessica Williams
  4. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Code 615, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770, USA

    • Thomas A. Neumann
  5. Climate Change Institute and School of Earth and Climate Sciences, University of Maine, Orono, Maine 04469, USA

    • Paul A. Mayewski
    • , Daniel A. Dixon
    •  & Elena Korotkikh
  6. Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada 89512, USA

    • Kendrick C. Taylor
  7. Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement, Centre d’Etudes de Saclay, Gif-sur-Yvette 91191, France

    • Georg Hoffmann
  8. Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht University, Utrecht 3508 TC, Netherlands

    • Georg Hoffmann
  9. National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80305, USA

    • David P. Schneider


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E.J.S., J.W.C.W., S.B.R., P.D.N., B.R.M., B.H.V., D.P.S., S.W.S., T.A.N., P.A.M., K.C.T., T.J.F., D.A.D. and E.K. conducted fieldwork and sample collection. P.D.N., A.J.S., R.P.T., B.H.V., E.K., E.J.S., D.P.S., J.W.C.W., S.B.R., L.B. and J.W. obtained the ice-core water-isotope data. G.H. provided code and assistance with the modelling. E.J.S. and Q.D. compiled the data, conducted the model experiments and calculations and wrote the paper. All authors contributed to the final manuscript text.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Eric J. Steig or Peter D. Neff or Ailie J. E. Gallant.

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