Deep sea geological records indicate that Antarctic ice-sheet growth and decay is strongly influenced by the Earth’s astronomical variations (known as Milankovitch cycles), and that the frequency of the glacial–interglacial cycles changes through time. Here we examine the emergence of a strong obliquity (axial tilt) control on Antarctic ice-sheet evolution during the Miocene by correlating the Antarctic margin geological records from 34 to 5 million years ago with a measure of obliquity sensitivity that compares the variance in deep sea sediment core oxygen-isotope data at obliquity timescales with variance of the calculated obliquity forcing. Our analysis reveals distinct phases of ice-sheet evolution and suggests the sensitivity to obliquity forcing increases when ice-sheet margins extend into marine environments. We propose that this occurs because obliquity-driven changes in the meridional temperature gradient affect the position and strength of the circum-Antarctic easterly flow and enhance (or reduce) ocean heat transport across the Antarctic continental margin. The influence of obliquity-driven changes in ocean dynamics is amplified when marine ice sheets are extensive, and sea ice is limited. Our reconstruction of the Antarctic ice-sheet history suggests that if sea-ice cover decreases in the coming decades, ocean-driven melting at the ice-sheet margin will be amplified.

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Data sets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available in Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 or from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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This study was supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment contract C05X1001 (R.H.L., T.R.N., N.R.G. and R.M.M.) and by NSF grant EAR-1151438 (S.R.M.). A sabbatical leave from the University of Wisconsin—Madison supported S.R.M to conduct research at the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Science.

Author information


  1. GNS Science, Lower Hutt, New Zealand

    • R. H. Levy
    • , N. R. Golledge
    • , J. S. Crampton
    •  & C. Clowes
  2. Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

    • R. H. Levy
    • , T. R. Naish
    • , N. R. Golledge
    •  & R. M. McKay
  3. Department of Geoscience, University of Wisconsin—Madison, Madison, WI, USA

    • S. R. Meyers
  4. School of Geography, Environment and Earth Science, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

    • J. S. Crampton
  5. Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA

    • R. M. DeConto
  6. Istituto Nazionale di Oceanografia e di Geofisica Sperimentale (OGS), Sgonico, Trieste, Italy

    • L. De Santis
  7. Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV), Roma, Italy

    • F. Florindo
  8. School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK

    • E. G. W. Gasson
  9. Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA

    • D. M. Harwood
  10. Earth Science Department, University of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

    • B. P. Luyendyk
  11. Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL, USA

    • R. D. Powell
  12. International Ocean Discovery Program, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX, USA

    • D. K. Kulhanek


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R.H.L. and S.R.M. conceived the project. R.H.L., T.R.N. and R.M.M. performed the stratigraphic and proxy synthesis, and S.R.M. conducted the time series analyses. R.H.L. and S.R.M. wrote the first draft of the manuscript, in consultation with T.R.N., N.R.G., J.S.C. and R.M.M. All the authors contributed to the interpretations and major findings of this work.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. H. Levy.

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