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


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.

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Fig. 1: Setting of IODP Site U1361 offshore of the Wilkes Subglacial Basin.
Fig. 2: Late Pleistocene records from U1361A spanning MIS 1 to MIS 12.
Fig. 3: Comparison of U1361A records to regional palaeoclimate and global sea level records.

Data availability

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


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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).

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

Author information




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.

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Correspondence to David J. Wilson.

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Extended data figures and tables

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.

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.

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

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

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Wilson, D.J., Bertram, R.A., Needham, E.F. et al. Ice loss from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during late Pleistocene interglacials. Nature 561, 383–386 (2018).

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  • East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS)
  • Sediment Provenance
  • Iceberg-rafted Debris (IBRD)
  • Ferrar Large Igneous Province (FLIP)
  • Sortable Silt

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