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Acceleration of snow melt in an Antarctic Peninsula ice core during the twentieth century

Nature Geoscience volume 6, pages 404411 (2013) | Download Citation


Over the past 50 years, warming of the Antarctic Peninsula has been accompanied by accelerating glacier mass loss and the retreat and collapse of ice shelves. A key driver of ice loss is summer melting; however, it is not usually possible to specifically reconstruct the summer conditions that are critical for determining ice melt in Antarctic. Here we reconstruct changes in ice-melt intensity and mean temperature on the northern Antarctic Peninsula since AD 1000 based on the identification of visible melt layers in the James Ross Island ice core and local mean annual temperature estimates from the deuterium content of the ice. During the past millennium, the coolest conditions and lowest melt occurred from about AD 1410 to 1460, when mean temperature was 1.6 °C lower than that of 1981–2000. Since the late 1400s, there has been a nearly tenfold increase in melt intensity from 0.5 to 4.9%. The warming has occurred in progressive phases since about AD 1460, but intensification of melt is nonlinear, and has largely occurred since the mid-twentieth century. Summer melting is now at a level that is unprecedented over the past 1,000 years. We conclude that ice on the Antarctic Peninsula is now particularly susceptible to rapid increases in melting and loss in response to relatively small increases in mean temperature.

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We thank our colleagues in the field, O. Alemany, S. Foord, S. Shelley and L. Sime, who took part in the ice-core drilling project; the Captain and crew of HMS Endurance who provided logistical support for the drilling field season; S. Foord, N. Lang, J. Levine, L. Sime, R. Röthlisberger, and the Alfred Wegener Institute at Bremerhaven for assistance in the processing of the ice core; and E. Capron, S. Foord and E. Ludlow for laboratory assistance. This study was aided by the use of the KNMI Climate Explorer web resource provided by G. J. van Oldenborgh, and we thank S. Das, H. Pritchard, J. King and C. Krause for helpful discussions during the preparation of the manuscript. This study is part of the British Antarctic Survey Polar Science for Planet Earth Programme, and was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. Support from the Institut Polaire Français - Paul Emile Victor and the Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers in France, facilitated by J. Chappellaz and F. Vimeux, enabled the technical contribution of the French National Center for Drilling and Coring (INSU/C2FN). N.J.A. is supported by a Queen Elizabeth II fellowship awarded by the Australian Research Council (DP110101161).

Author information


  1. British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

    • Nerilie J. Abram
    • , Robert Mulvaney
    • , Eric W. Wolff
    • , Jack Triest
    •  & Louise Fleet
  2. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia

    • Nerilie J. Abram
  3. UJF-Grenoble 1/CNRS Laboratoire de Glaciologie et Géophysique de l’Environnement (LGGE) UMR 5183, Grenoble F-38041, France

    • Jack Triest
  4. Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, D-27568 Bremerhaven, Germany

    • Sepp Kipfstuhl
  5. Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts 01610, USA

    • Luke D. Trusel
  6. Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Laboratoire HydroSciences Montpellier et Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environment, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Françoise Vimeux
  7. NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory, British Geological Survey, Keyworth NG12 5GG, UK

    • Carol Arrowsmith


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R.M. led the project to drill the ice core, which also involved N.J.A. and J.T.; J.T. and S.K. performed the line-scan measurements and J.T. wrote the Labview software for melt analysis; N.J.A. and J.T. performed the melt layer analysis; N.J.A., R.M., L.F. and C.A. performed the chemical analysis; N.J.A. and R.M. developed the ice-core age scale; L.D.T. provided satellite melt data for JRI; N.J.A. led the data analysis and wrote the paper with contributions from R.M., E.W.W., L.D.T. and F.V.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Nerilie J. Abram or Robert Mulvaney.

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