Letter | Published:

Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials

Naturevolume 561pages383386 (2018) | Download Citation


Understanding ice sheet behaviour in the geological past is essential for evaluating the role of the cryosphere in the climate system and for projecting rates and magnitudes of sea level rise in future warming scenarios1,2,3,4. Although both geological data5,6,7 and ice sheet models3,8 indicate that marine-based sectors of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet were unstable during Pliocene warm intervals, the ice sheet dynamics during late Pleistocene interglacial intervals are highly uncertain3,9,10. Here we provide evidence from marine sedimentological and geochemical records for ice margin retreat or thinning in the vicinity of the Wilkes Subglacial Basin of East Antarctica during warm late Pleistocene interglacial intervals. The most extreme changes in sediment provenance, recording changes in the locus of glacial erosion, occurred during marine isotope stages 5, 9, and 11, when Antarctic air temperatures11 were at least two degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures for 2,500 years or more. Hence, our study indicates a close link between extended Antarctic warmth and ice loss from the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, providing ice-proximal data to support a contribution to sea level from a reduced East Antarctic Ice Sheet during warm interglacial intervals. While the behaviour of other regions of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet remains to be assessed, it appears that modest future warming may be sufficient to cause ice loss from the Wilkes Subglacial Basin.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Data availability

All data from this study can be found in the Supplementary Information.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    IPCC. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (eds. Stocker, T. F. et al.) 1535 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2013).

  2. 2.

    Mengel, M. & Levermann, A. Ice plug prevents irreversible discharge from East Antarctica. Nat. Clim. Chang. 4, 451–455 (2014).

  3. 3.

    DeConto, R. M. & Pollard, D. Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise. Nature 531, 591–597 (2016).

  4. 4.

    Golledge, N. R. et al. The multi-millennial Antarctic commitment to future sea-level rise. Nature 526, 421–425 (2015).

  5. 5.

    Cook, C. P. et al. Dynamic behaviour of the East Antarctic ice sheet during Pliocene warmth. Nat. Geosci. 6, 765–769 (2013).

  6. 6.

    Patterson, M. O. et al. Orbital forcing of the East Antarctic ice sheet during the Pliocene and Early Pleistocene. Nat. Geosci. 7, 841–847 (2014).

  7. 7.

    Reinardy, B. T. I. et al. Repeated advance and retreat of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet on the continental shelf during the early Pliocene warm period. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 422, 65–84 (2015).

  8. 8.

    Austermann, J. et al. The impact of dynamic topography change on Antarctic ice sheet stability during the mid-Pliocene warm period. Geology 43, 927–930 (2015).

  9. 9.

    Golledge, N. R., Levy, R. H., McKay, R. M. & Naish, T. R. East Antarctic ice sheet most vulnerable to Weddell Sea warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 2343–2351 (2017).

  10. 10.

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

  11. 11.

    Jouzel, J. et al. Orbital and millennial Antarctic climate variability over the past 800,000 years. Science 317, 793–796 (2007).

  12. 12.

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

  13. 13.

    Schoof, C. Ice sheet grounding line dynamics: Steady states, stability, and hysteresis. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 112, (2007).

  14. 14.

    Ritz, C. et al. Potential sea-level rise from Antarctic ice-sheet instability constrained by observations. Nature 528, 115–118 (2015).

  15. 15.

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

  16. 16.

    Scherer, R. P. et al. Pleistocene collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Science 281, 82–85 (1998).

  17. 17.

    Dutton, A. et al. Sea-level rise due to polar ice-sheet mass loss during past warm periods. Science 349, aaa4019 (2015).

  18. 18.

    Elderfield, H. et al. Evolution of ocean temperature and ice volume through the Mid-Pleistocene Climate Transition. Science 337, 704–709 (2012).

  19. 19.

    Martínez-Garcia, A. et al. Links between iron supply, marine productivity, sea surface temperature, and CO2 over the last 1.1 Ma. Paleoceanography 24, PA1207 (2009).

  20. 20.

    Escutia, C., Brinkhuis, H., Klaus, A. & the Expedition 318 Scientists Proc.IODP, 318 (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Management International, Inc., Tokyo, 2011).

  21. 21.

    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).

  22. 22.

    Spence, P. et al. Rapid subsurface warming and circulation changes of Antarctic coastal waters by poleward shifting winds. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 4601–4610 (2014).

  23. 23.

    DeConto, R., Pollard, D. & Harwood, D. Sea ice feedback and Cenozoic evolution of Antarctic climate and ice sheets. Paleoceanography 22, PA3214 (2007).

  24. 24.

    Golledge, N. R. et al. Antarctic climate and ice-sheet configuration during the early Pliocene interglacial at 4.23 Ma. Clim. Past 13, 959–975 (2017).

  25. 25.

    Siegenthaler, U. et al. Stable carbon cycle-climate relationship during the late Pleistocene. Science 310, 1313–1317 (2005).

  26. 26.

    Fogwill, C. J. et al. Testing the sensitivity of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to Southern Ocean dynamics: past changes and future implications. J. Quat. Sci. 29, 91–98 (2014).

  27. 27.

    Holden, P. B. et al. Interhemispheric coupling, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and warm Antarctic interglacials. Clim. Past 6, 431–443 (2010).

  28. 28.

    Waelbroeck, C. et al. Sea-level and deep water temperature changes derived from benthic foraminifera isotopic records. Quat. Sci. Rev. 21, 295–305 (2002).

  29. 29.

    Alley, R. B., Anandakrishnan, S., Dupont, T. K., Parizek, B. R. & Pollard, D. Effect of sedimentation on ice-sheet grounding-line stability. Science 315, 1838–1841 (2007).

  30. 30.

    Pollard, D. & DeConto, R. M. in Glacial Sedimentary Processes and Products (eds. Hambrey, M.J., Christoffersen, P., Glasser, N.F. & Hubbard, B.) 37–52 (Blackwell, Oxford, 2007).

  31. 31.

    Thompson, J. W. & Cooper, A. P. R. The SCAR Antarctic digital topographic database. Antarctic Sci. 5, 239–244 (1993).

  32. 32.

    Wilson, D. J., Piotrowski, A. M., Galy, A. & Clegg, J. A. Reactivity of neodymium carriers in deep sea sediments: Implications for boundary exchange and paleoceanography. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 109, 197–221 (2013).

  33. 33.

    Bayon, G. et al. An improved method for extracting marine sediment fractions and its application to Sr and Nd isotopic analysis. Chem. Geol. 187, 179–199 (2002).

  34. 34.

    Chester, R. & Hughes, M. J. A chemical technique for the separation of ferro-manganese minerals, carbonate minerals and adsorbed trace elements from pelagic sediments. Chem. Geol. 2, 249–262 (1967).

  35. 35.

    Tanaka, T. et al. JNdi-1: a neodymium isotopic reference in consistency with LaJolla neodymium. Chem. Geol. 168, 279–281 (2000).

  36. 36.

    Weis, D. et al. High-precision isotopic characterization of USGS reference materials by TIMS and MC-ICP-MS. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7, Q08006 (2006).

  37. 37.

    Eisenhauer, A. et al. Grain size separation and sediment mixing in Arctic Ocean sediments: evidence from the strontium isotope systematic. Chem. Geol. 158, 173–188 (1999).

  38. 38.

    Maggi, F. The settling velocity of mineral, biomineral, and biological particles and aggregates in water. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 118, 2118–2132 (2013).

  39. 39.

    Cook, C. P. et al. Glacial erosion of East Antarctica in the Pliocene: A comparative study of multiple marine sediment provenance tracers. Chem. Geol. 466, 199–218 (2017).

  40. 40.

    Chen, T. Y., Frank, M., Haley, B. A., Gutjahr, M. & Spielhagen, R. F. Variations of North Atlantic inflow to the central Arctic Ocean over the last 14 million years inferred from hafnium and neodymium isotopes. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 353–354, 82–92 (2012).

  41. 41.

    Du, J. H., Haley, B. A. & Mix, A. C. Neodymium isotopes in authigenic phases, bottom waters and detrital sediments in the Gulf of Alaska and their implications for paleo-circulation reconstruction. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 193, 14–35 (2016).

  42. 42.

    Bayon, G., German, C. R., Burton, K. W., Nesbitt, R. W. & Rogers, N. Sedimentary Fe-Mn oxyhydroxides as paleoceanographic archives and the role of aeolian flux in regulating oceanic dissolved REE. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 224, 477–492 (2004).

  43. 43.

    Blaser, P. et al. Extracting foraminiferal seawater Nd isotope signatures from bulk deep sea sediment by chemical leaching. Chem. Geol. 439, 189–204 (2016).

  44. 44.

    Elmore, A. C., Piotrowski, A. M., Wright, J. D. & Scrivner, A. E. Testing the extraction of past seawater Nd isotopic composition from North Atlantic deep sea sediments and foraminifera. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 12, Q09008 (2011).

  45. 45.

    van de Flierdt, T. et al. Neodymium in the oceans: a global database, a regional comparison and implications for palaeoceanographic research. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. A 374, 20150293 (2016).

  46. 46.

    Skinner, L. C. et al. North Atlantic versus Southern Ocean contributions to a deglacial surge in deep ocean ventilation. Geology 41, 667–670 (2013).

  47. 47.

    Frederick, B. C. et al. Distribution of subglacial sediments across the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, East Antarctica. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf. 121, 790–813 (2016).

  48. 48.

    Krissek, L. A. in Proc. ODP, Sci. Results, 145, (eds. Rea, D. K., Basov, I. A., Scholl, D. W. & Allan, J. F.) 179–194 (Ocean Drilling Program, College Station, Texas, 1995).

  49. 49.

    Depoorter, M. A. et al. Calving fluxes and basal melt rates of Antarctic ice shelves. Nature 502, 89–92 (2013).

  50. 50.

    Weber, M. E. et al. Millennial-scale variability in Antarctic ice-sheet discharge during the last deglaciation. Nature 510, 134–138 (2014).

  51. 51.

    Stuart, K. M. & Long, D. G. Tracking large tabular icebergs using the SeaWinds Ku-band microwave scatterometer. Deep Sea Res. Part II Top. Stud. Oceanogr. 58, 1285–1300 (2011).

  52. 52.

    Bertram, R. A. et al. Pliocene deglacial event timelines and the biogeochemical response offshore Wilkes Subglacial Basin, East Antarctica. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 494, 109–116 (2018).

  53. 53.

    McCave, I. N. Sedimentary processes and the creation of the stratigraphic record in the Late Quaternary North Atlantic Ocean. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 348, 229–241 (1995).

  54. 54.

    McCave, I. N. & Hall, I. R. Size sorting in marine muds: Processes, pitfalls, and prospects for paleoflow-speed proxies. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7, Q10N05 (2006).

  55. 55.

    Donda, F., Brancolini, G., De Santis, L. & Trincardi, F. Seismic facies and sedimentary processes on the continental rise off Wilkes Land (East Antarctica): evidence of bottom current activity. Deep Sea Res. Part II Top. Stud. Oceanogr. 50, 1509–1527 (2003).

  56. 56.

    Mahowald, N., Albani, S., Engelstaedter, S., Winckler, G. & Goman, M. Model insight into glacial-interglacial paleodust records. Quat. Sci. Rev. 30, 832–854 (2011).

  57. 57.

    Jimenez-Espejo, F. J. et al. Detrital input, productivity fluctuations, and water mass circulation in the westernmost Mediterranean Sea since the Last Glacial Maximum. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 9, Q11U02 (2008).

  58. 58.

    Bonn, W. J., Gingele, F. X., Grobe, H., Mackensen, A. & Futterer, D. K. Palaeoproductivity at the Antarctic continental margin: opal and barium records for the last 400 ka. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 139, 195–211 (1998).

  59. 59.

    Plewa, K., Meggers, H. & Kasten, S. Barium in sediments off northwest Africa: A tracer for paleoproductivity or meltwater events? Paleoceanography 21, PA2015 (2006).

  60. 60.

    Bahr, A. et al. Deciphering bottom current velocity and paleoclimate signals from contourite deposits in the Gulf of Cadiz during the last 140 kyr: An inorganic geochemical approach. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 15, 3145–3160 (2014).

  61. 61.

    Griffith, E. M. & Paytan, A. Barite in the ocean—occurrence, geochemistry and palaeoceanographic applications. Sedimentology 59, 1817–1835 (2012).

  62. 62.

    van den Berg, B. C. J. et al. Astronomical tuning for the upper Messinian Spanish Atlantic margin: Disentangling basin evolution, climate cyclicity and MOW. Global Planet. Change 135, 89–103 (2015).

  63. 63.

    Van der Weijden, C. H. Pitfalls of normalization of marine geochemical data using a common divisor. Mar. Geol. 184, 167–187 (2002).

  64. 64.

    Rathburn, A. E., Pichon, J. J., Ayress, M. A. & DeDeckker, P. Microfossil and stable-isotope evidence for changes in Late Holocene palaeoproductivity and palaeoceanographic conditions in the Prydz Bay region of Antarctica. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 131, 485–510 (1997).

  65. 65.

    Stuiver, M. & Polach, H. A. Discussion: reporting of 14C data. Radiocarbon 19, 355–363 (1977).

  66. 66.

    Ingólfsson, Ó. et al. Antarctic glacial history since the Last Glacial Maximum: an overview of the record on land. Antarct. Sci. 10, 326–344 (1998).

  67. 67.

    Reimer, P. J. et al. IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0-50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1869–1887 (2013).

  68. 68.

    Presti, M. et al. Sediment delivery and depositional patterns off Adelie Land (East Antarctica) in relation to late Quaternary climatic cycles. Mar. Geol. 284, 96–113 (2011).

  69. 69.

    Gersonde, R. & Barcena, M. A. Revision of the upper Pliocene - Pleistocene diatom biostratigraphy for the northern belt of the Southern Ocean. Micropaleontology 44, 84–98 (1998).

  70. 70.

    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).

  71. 71.

    Cody, R. et al. Selection and stability of quantitative stratigraphic age models: Plio-Pleistocene glaciomarine sediments in the ANDRILL 1B drillcore, McMurdo Ice Shelf. Global Planet. Change 96-97, 143–156 (2012).

  72. 72.

    Lisiecki, L. E. & Raymo, M. E. A Pliocene-Pleistocene stack of 57 globally distributed benthic δ18O records. Paleoceanography 20, PA1003 (2005).

Download references


This research used samples and data provided by Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Expedition 318, sponsored by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and participating countries under the management of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. D.J.W. thanks B. Coles, C. Huck, K. Kreissig, N. Pratt and P. Simoes Pereira for technical support. D.J.W., R.A.B., E.F.N. and T.v.d.F. acknowledge financial support from the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-398) and NERC (NE/N001141/1, NE/H025162/1). K.J.W. and R.M.M. were funded by the Australia-New Zealand IODP Consortium’s Australian Research Council LIEF grants (LE140100047, LE0882854). R.M.M. was funded by a Royal Society (New Zealand) Rutherford Discovery Fellowship (RDF-13-VUW-003). C.E. and F.J.J.-E. acknowledge funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation Grant CTM2017-89711-C2-1 co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (FEDER).

Reviewer information

Nature thanks A. Shevenell and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information


  1. Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, London, UK

    • David J. Wilson
    • , Rachel A. Bertram
    • , Emma F. Needham
    •  & Tina van de Flierdt
  2. Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, London, UK

    • David J. Wilson
    • , Rachel A. Bertram
    •  & Tina van de Flierdt
  3. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

    • Kevin J. Welsh
    •  & Anannya Mazumder
  4. Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand

    • Robert M. McKay
  5. Department of Geology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

    • Christina R. Riesselman
  6. Department of Marine Science, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

    • Christina R. Riesselman
  7. Department of Biogeochemistry, JAMSTEC, Yokosuka, Japan

    • Francisco J. Jimenez-Espejo
  8. Andalusian Institute of Earth Sciences, CSIC and Universidad de Granada, Armilla, Spain

    • Francisco J. Jimenez-Espejo
    •  & Carlota Escutia


  1. Search for David J. Wilson in:

  2. Search for Rachel A. Bertram in:

  3. Search for Emma F. Needham in:

  4. Search for Tina van de Flierdt in:

  5. Search for Kevin J. Welsh in:

  6. Search for Robert M. McKay in:

  7. Search for Anannya Mazumder in:

  8. Search for Christina R. Riesselman in:

  9. Search for Francisco J. Jimenez-Espejo in:

  10. Search for Carlota Escutia in:


D.J.W., T.v.d.F., and K.J.W. designed the research; D.J.W., R.A.B., E.F.N., and T.v.d.F. carried out the Nd isotope analyses; R.A.B. carried out the Sr isotope analyses; A.M. performed the diatom counts with guidance from C.R.R. and K.J.W.; R.M.M. and K.J.W. carried out sedimentological analyses; F.J.J.-E. and C.E. conducted XRF scanning measurements and PCA analysis; C.R.R., K.J.W., and R.M.M. generated the age model. All authors contributed to data interpretation. D.J.W. wrote the paper, with input from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David J. Wilson.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 Neodymium isotope data for bulk detrital sediment, <63 μm fraction, and reductive sediment leachates in U1361A, in comparison to regional bedrock endmembers.

    a, Down core measurements on the different fractions, with boxes and arrows on the right indicating bedrock endmember compositions in the region (refs 5,39 and references cited therein). Horizontal lines indicate Holocene core top values for bulk detrital samples (red dashed line) and 1 h leachate samples (black dashed line). Error bars are 2 s.d. external reproducibility, and are smaller than the symbol sizes where not shown. b, Regional bedrock map, with those same bedrock endmembers located by coloured shading (map redrawn from ref. 5, with topography from ref. 12, and the subglacial extent of the FLIP shown by a green dotted outline inferred from ref. 21). In addition to the three endmembers shown in a, purple shading on the map indicates Archaean to Proterozoic basement rocks of the Adélie Craton, with highly unradiogenic Nd isotopic compositions (εNd = –20 to –29). CB, Central Basin; HB, Horn Bluff. For interpretation of the leachate and detrital Nd isotope data, see Methods. Map redrawn from ref. 5 with permission.

  2. Extended Data Fig. 2 Neodymium isotope versus Sr isotope crossplot for late Pleistocene fine fraction (<63 μm) sediments in U1361A, in comparison to Pliocene detrital sediments from Site U1361 and regional bedrock endmembers.

    The Pliocene data are based on either the <63 μm or <150 μm size fractions5,39,52, while bedrock endmember compositions are based on refs 5,39 (and references cited therein). These data indicate identical trends between the Pliocene and Pleistocene, from which we infer similar provenance variations during both these intervals.

  3. Extended Data Fig. 3 Age model for U1361A.

    a, LR04 benthic oxygen isotope (δ18O) stack72, labelled with interglacial MIS numbers. b, Age–depth constraints for U1361A cores 1H and 2H, plotted alongside lithology. Vertical bars for each datum indicate upper and lower depth constraints in U1361A (Supplementary Table 8). Black dashed line is a linear model fit through the Holocene radiocarbon age, H. karstenii last common occurrence (LCO), A. ingens last occurrence (LO) (upper and lower depths), and the base of chron C1n (*upper depth only, based on the splice to U1361B) (Supplementary Table 8). Forced to an intercept of 0 ka at 0 mbsf, this trendline produces the age–depth equation y = 64.314x, where y is age (ka; kyr ago) and x is depth (mbsf). This equation was used to calculate ages for Fig. 3d, e. Grey dotted lines tie lithological transitions to MIS boundaries, based on our age–depth constraints. Note that the Pleistocene section of the core below MIS 12 is affected by sediment disturbance, with extreme disturbance from 9.0–11.67 mbsf (soupy) and 11.67–14.26 mbsf (flow) represented schematically with a zigzag line. We have therefore restricted our provenance study to the upper ~7.5 mbsf.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Tables

    The supplementary file contains the following data tables for U1361A: Table S1. Detrital bulk sediment Nd isotope measurements, Table S2. Detrital sediment (<63 μm fraction) Nd and Sr isotope measurements, Table S3. Acid-reductive leachate Nd isotope measurements, Table S4. Grain size measurements, Table S5. Ba/Al count ratios by XRF scanning, Table S6. Results of principal component analysis on XRF data, Table S7. Absolute diatom abundance and species distribution, Table S8. Chronostratigraphic constraints

About this article

Publication history




Issue Date




By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.