Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Dynamic behaviour of the East Antarctic ice sheet during Pliocene warmth


Warm intervals within the Pliocene epoch (5.33–2.58 million years ago) were characterized by global temperatures comparable to those predicted for the end of this century1 and atmospheric CO2 concentrations similar to today2,3,4. Estimates for global sea level highstands during these times5 imply possible retreat of the East Antarctic ice sheet, but ice-proximal evidence from the Antarctic margin is scarce. Here we present new data from Pliocene marine sediments recovered offshore of Adélie Land, East Antarctica, that reveal dynamic behaviour of the East Antarctic ice sheet in the vicinity of the low-lying Wilkes Subglacial Basin during times of past climatic warmth. Sedimentary sequences deposited between 5.3 and 3.3 million years ago indicate increases in Southern Ocean surface water productivity, associated with elevated circum-Antarctic temperatures. The geochemical provenance of detrital material deposited during these warm intervals suggests active erosion of continental bedrock from within the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, an area today buried beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet. We interpret this erosion to be associated with retreat of the ice sheet margin several hundreds of kilometres inland and conclude that the East Antarctic ice sheet was sensitive to climatic warmth during the Pliocene.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Regional map of study area, including geology of outcrops and inferred subglacial geology.
Figure 2: Pliocene records from IODP Site U1361 in comparison to other circum-Antarctic and global records.
Figure 3: Neodymium and strontium isotopic composition of Pliocene detrital sediments from IODP Site U1361 and East Antarctic geological terranes proximal to the study area.


  1. Haywood, A. M. & Valdes, P. J. Modelling Pliocene warmth: Contribution of atmosphere, oceans and cryosphere. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 218, 363–377 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Seki, O. et al. Alkenone and boron-based Pliocene p CO 2 records. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 292, 201–211 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Bartoli, G., Honisch, B. & Zeebe, R. E. Atmospheric p CO 2 decline during the Pliocene intensification of Northern Hemisphere glaciations. Paleoceanography 26, PA4213 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Pagani, M., Liu, Z. H., LaRiviere, J. & Ravelo, A. C. High Earth-system climate sensitivity determined from Pliocene carbon dioxide concentrations. Nature Geosci. 3, 27–30 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Miller, K. G. et al. High tide of the warm Pliocene: Implications of global sea level for Antarctic deglaciation. Geology 40, 407–410 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Rignot, E., Velicogna, I., van den Broeke, M. R., Monaghan, A. & Lenaerts, J. Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L05503 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Pritchard, H. D. et al. Antarctic ice-sheet loss driven by basal melting of ice shelves. Nature 484, 502–505 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Shepherd, A. et al. A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance. Science 338, 1183–1189 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Naish, T. R. & Wilson, G. S. Constraints on the amplitude of Mid-Pliocene (3.6-2.4 Ma) eustatic sea-level fluctuations from the New Zealand shallow-marine sediment record. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 367, 169–187 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Raymo, M. E., Mitrovica, J. X., O’Leary, M. J., DeConto, R. M. & Hearty, P. L. Departures from eustasy in Pliocene sea-level records. Nature Geosci. 4, 328–332 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Lythe, M. B., Vaughan, D. G. & Consortium, B. BEDMAP: A new ice thickness and subglacial topographic model of Antarctica. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 11335–11351 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Hill, D. J., Haywood, A. M., Hindmarsh, R. C. A. & Valdes, P. J. in Deep Time Perspectives on Climate Change (eds Williams, M., Haywood, A.M., Gregory, J. & Schmidt, D.) 517–538 (The Micropalaeontological Society/The Geological Society of London, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Dolan, A. M. et al. Sensitivity of Pliocene ice sheets to orbital forcing. Paleogeogr. Paleoclimatol. Paleoecol. 309, 98–110 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Williams, T. et al. Evidence for iceberg armadas from East Antarctica in the Southern Ocean during the late Miocene and early Pliocene. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 290, 351–361 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Whitehead, J. M., Quilty, P. G., Harwood, D. M. & McMinn, A. Early Pliocene paleoenvironment of the Sørsdal Formation, Vestfold Hills, based on diatom data. Mar. Micropaleontol. 41, 125–152 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Whitehead, J. M. & McKelvey, B. C. The stratigraphy of the Pliocene-lower Pleistocene Bardin Bluffs Formation, Amery Oasis, northern Prince Charles Mountains, Antarctica. Antarctic Sci. 13, 79–86 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Tauxe, L. et al. Chronostratigraphic framework for the IODP Expedition 318 cores from the Wilkes Land Margin: Constraints for paleoceanographic reconstruction. Paleoceanography 27, PA2214 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Escutia, C., Brinkhuis, H., Klaus, A. & Expedition 318 Scientists, Proc. Intergrated Ocean Drilling Program Vol. 318 (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Management International, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Escutia, C. et al. Circum-Antarctic warming events between 4 and 3.5 Ma recorded in marine sediments from the Prydz Bay (ODP Leg 188) and the Antarctic Peninsula (ODP Leg 178) margins. Glob. Planet. Change 69, 170–184 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Bohaty, S. M. & Harwood, D. M. Southern Ocean Pliocene paleotemperature variation from high-resolution silicoflagellate biostratigraphy. Mar. Micropaleontol. 33, 241–272 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Whitehead, J. M. & Bohaty, S. M. Pliocene summer sea surface temperature reconstruction using silicoflagellates from Southern Ocean ODP Site 1165. Paleoceanography 18, 1075 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. McKay, R. M. et al. Antarctic and Southern Ocean influences on Late Pliocene global cooling. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 6423–6428 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Ferraccioli, F., Armadillo, E., Jordan, T., Bozzo, E. & Corr, H. Aeromagnetic exploration over the East Antarctic Ice Sheet: A new view of the Wilkes Subglacial Basin. Tectonophysics 478, 62–77 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Fretwell, P. et al. Bedmap2: Improved ice bed, surface and thickness datasets for Antarctica. Cryosphere 7, 375–393 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Naish, T. et al. Obliquity-paced Pliocene West Antarctic ice sheet oscillations. Nature 458, 322–328 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Alley, R. B. et al. How glaciers entrain and transport basal sediment: Physical constraints. Quat. Sci. Rev. 16, 1017–1038 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Jamieson, S. S. R., Sugden, D. E. & Hulton, N. R. J. The evolution of the subglacial landscape of Antarctica. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 293, 1–27 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Pollard, D. & DeConto, R. M. Modelling West Antarctic ice sheet growth and collapse through the past five million years. Nature 458, 329–332 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Lisiecki, L. E. & Raymo, M. E. A Pliocene-Pleistocene stack of 57 globally distributed benthic δ 18 O records. Paleoceanography 20, PA1003 (2005).

    Google Scholar 

  30. Gradstein, F., Ogg, J., Schmitz, M. & Ogg, G. The Geological Time Scale (Elsevier, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This research used samples and data provided by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP). The IODP is sponsored by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and participating countries under the management of Joint Oceanographic Institutions. We thank B. Coles and K. Kreissig for technical laboratory support, and A. G. C. Graham for assistance with cartography. Financial support for this study was provided by NERC UK IODP to T.v.d.F. (grants NE/H014144/1 and NE/H025162/1), by the European Commission to T.v.d.F. (grant IRG 230828), by the National Science Foundation to T.W., T.v.d.F. and S.R.H. (grant ANT 09-44489), by the NSF to S.P. (grant OCE 1060080), by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation to C.E. (grant CTM 2011-24079), by the National Science Foundation to L.T. (grant OCE 1058858), by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to F.S. and H.B. (grant 86610110), by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science KAKHENI to M.I. (grants 25550015 and 23244102) and by the National Research Foundation of Korea to B-K.K. (grant 2011-0021632).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



C.P.C., T.v.d.F., T.W. and S.R.H. designed the research; C.P.C. carried out the neodymium and strontium isotope analyses; M.I. and M.K. performed the diatom counts, interpreted in discussion with S.M.B. and C.R.R.; F.J.J-E., J.J.G. and C.E. were responsible for XRF bulk geochemistry analyses; R.M.M., M.O.P. and S.P. carried out sedimentological analyses; A.L.G., F.J.J-E. and C.E. collected clay mineralogy data; B-K.K. analysed opal contents.; L.T. and S.S. were responsible for magnetic analyses. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the data. C.P.C. and T.v.d.F. wrote the paper with input from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carys P. Cook.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1638 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (XLSX 13 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (XLSX 17 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Cook, C., van de Flierdt, T., Williams, T. et al. Dynamic behaviour of the East Antarctic ice sheet during Pliocene warmth. Nature Geosci 6, 765–769 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing