Dynamic behaviour of the East Antarctic ice sheet during Pliocene warmth

Abstract

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.

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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.

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Acknowledgements

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

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.

Correspondence to Carys P. Cook.

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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) doi:10.1038/ngeo1889

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