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A large West Antarctic Ice Sheet explains early Neogene sea-level amplitude

Abstract

Early to Middle Miocene sea-level oscillations of approximately 40–60 m estimated from far-field records1,2,3 are interpreted to reflect the loss of virtually all East Antarctic ice during peak warmth2. This contrasts with ice-sheet model experiments suggesting most terrestrial ice in East Antarctica was retained even during the warmest intervals of the Middle Miocene4,5. Data and model outputs can be reconciled if a large West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) existed and expanded across most of the outer continental shelf during the Early Miocene, accounting for maximum ice-sheet volumes. Here we provide the earliest geological evidence proving large WAIS expansions occurred during the Early Miocene (~17.72–17.40 Ma). Geochemical and petrographic data show glacimarine sediments recovered at International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Site U1521 in the central Ross Sea derive from West Antarctica, requiring the presence of a WAIS covering most of the Ross Sea continental shelf. Seismic, lithological and palynological data reveal the intermittent proximity of grounded ice to Site U1521. The erosion rate calculated from this sediment package greatly exceeds the long-term mean, implying rapid erosion of West Antarctica. This interval therefore captures a key step in the genesis of a marine-based WAIS and a tipping point in Antarctic ice-sheet evolution.

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Fig. 1: Site U1521 location and surrounding geology.
Fig. 2: Selected provenance proxies from IODP Site U1521 compared with Early Miocene climate records.
Fig. 3: Site U1521 detrital zircon U–Pb age distributions.

Data availability

The data sets generated as part of this study are available in the British Geological Survey National Geoscience Data Centre. Data sets include Nd and Sr isotope data (https://doi.org/10.5285/3a646c8a-8422-4079-a928-a159532439eb), zircon U-Pb dates (https://doi.org/10.5285/cfadf931-0804-484c-a9d0-96254239c421), clast counts (https://doi.org/10.5285/b043471f-22e5-40e4-b274-1c875316d725), clay mineralogy data (https://doi.org/10.5285/b3cb3574-49b0-44c8-a934-3da88ca4ef93), hornblende 40Ar/39Ar dates (https://doi.org/10.5285/926cad28-669f-4703-8a5b-5e7e843a4ee1) and palynological counts (https://doi.org/10.5285/adea0809-5fe5-4fb5-9f3e-9d774534d26d). Source data are provided with this paper.

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Acknowledgements

This research used data and samples provided by the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), which is sponsored by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and participating countries under the management of Joint Oceanographic Institutions. J.W.M. was supported by a NERC DTP studentship (grant number NE/L002515/1). Neodymium and Sr isotope analysis and U–Pb dating of detrital zircons was funded through NERC UK IODP grant NE/R018219/1. Clast counts performed by L.Z., F.T. and M.P. and the participation of L.D. and F.C. was funded by the Italian National Antarctic Research Program (PNRA, Programma Nazionale Ricerche in Antartide), grant numbers PNRA18-00233, PNRA16-00016 and PNRA18-00002. R.M.M. was supported by Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden Fund (18-VUW-089). R.M.M., J.G.P. and R.L. were supported by the New Zealand Ministry for Business Innovation and Employment grant ANTA1801. P.V. was partially funded by NERC Standard Grant NE/T001518/1. L.F.P. has been funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement no. 792773 WAMSISE. T.E.v.P. has been funded by NERC grants NE/R018235/1 and NE/T012285/1. D.K.K. was supported by the IODP JOIDES Resolution Science Operator and National Science Foundation (grant numbers OCE-1326927 and OPP-2000995). A.E.S. and I.B. were supported by the US Science Support Program. Southern Transantarctic Mountain rock samples for Nd and Sr isotope analysis were provided by the Polar Rock Repository with support from the National Science Foundation, under Cooperative Agreement OPP-1643713. We thank B. Coles, K. Kreissig and P. Simões Pereira for technical support. We also thank the numerous scientists who collected invaluable site survey data and developed the proposals and hypotheses that ultimately led to IODP Expedition 374. Expedition 374 was conducted under Antarctic Conservation Act Permit Number: ACA 2018-027 (permit holder: Bradford Clement, JRSO, IODP, TAMU, College Station, TX 77845).

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Contributions

J.W.M., T.v.d.F., R.M.M., L.D.S. and A.E.S. designed the research in collaboration with the entire IODP Expedition 374 science party. J.W.M. conducted the Nd and Sr isotope analyses. L.Z., F.T. and M.P. performed the clast counts. J.W.M., P.V. and A.C. produced the zircon U–Pb data. F.B. and V.B.R. collected the clay mineralogy data. F.S., J.G.P. and C.B. performed the palynological counts and interpretations. S.R.H. provided the hornblende 40Ar/39Ar data. K.J.L. provided guidance on geochronology interpretations. L.F.P., F.C. and L.D.S. calculated the sediment volume estimate. R.L., R.M.M., T.E.v.P., D.H., D.K.K. and E.M.G. improved the shipboard age model. N.B.S. and S.R.M. conducted the astrochronological analyses. D.K.K. provided the XRF data. E.G. and B.K. helped integrate sediment provenance data with numerical modelling. I.B., G.K. and J.P.D. advised on specific technical aspects of the manuscript. J.W.M. created the figures and wrote the text with assistance from all authors and particular guidance from T.v.d.F., C.D.H., E.G. and M.J.S. All Expedition 374 scientists contributed to the collection of shipboard datasets and the interpretations of the data.

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Correspondence to J. W. Marschalek.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Patrick Blaser, Maria Fernanda Sanchez-Goni, Kenneth Miller and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Age model constraints below 75 mbsf at Site U1521.

From left to right are: depth (metres below sea floor), core number, core recovery (black = recovered), inclination before and after 10 and 20 mT demagnetisation (black, blue and red points, successively), and corresponding polarity interpretations (black = normal, white = reversed, grey = no interpretation). Note that the polarity interpretations have been simplified compared to those in the cruise report26, with small uncertainties related to core gaps removed. Note Site U1521 is in the Southern Hemisphere. The geomagnetic polarity timescale49 is shown across the top of the plot. The orange shaded regions indicate uncertainties in our age model and the dashed line marks an alternative line of correlation for Sequence 3. The blue line indicates the age model for Sequence 2 based on our astrochronological analyses, with the light blue shading indicating the ~20 kyr uncertainty associated with the phase relationship between clast abundances and obliquity. This astrochronological anchoring agrees closely with linear interpolations between magnetostratigraphic tie points (black line).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Selected palynological counts compared to strontium and neodymium isotope data.

Palynological data are reported as percentages (crosses) and counts/gram (circles). The blue shaded area represents Sequence 2, which is interpreted as consisting of sediments with a West Antarctic provenance. Error bars indicate a 95% confidence interval48.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Down-core clast and clay mineral distribution.

The blue shaded area highlights Sequence 2, which is interpreted to consist of sediments with a West Antarctic provenance. a) Core lithology. b) Chronostratigraphic sequences. c) Clast abundance. d) Percentages of different clast lithologies. e) Ratio between dolerite and total number of clasts (red) and volcanic rocks and total number of clasts (green), with 95% confidence interval shown as pale shading48. f) Clay mineral abundances.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Map of approximate ɛNd values in rocks and offshore sediments from around the Ross Sea embayment.

Epsilon Nd values are overlain on MODIS imagery200 and the BedMachine Antarctica V1 modern bed topography43,44, with the MEaSUREs grounding line and ice sheet margin shown45,46. The approximate boundary between West and East Antarctic lithosphere is shown using a white dashed line47. Modern/late Holocene and terrestrial till samples are represented by circles with the same colour bar28,30,55. Although ice flow patterns have changed since their deposition, Last Glacial Maximum tills in offshore sediments are also plotted as squares to improve spatial coverage28. Individual samples and references are reported in Supplementary Table 1. The bedrock map was produced by Kriging between sample locations within a group, then masking to the outcrop area. Beacon and Ferrar Group (Fig. 1) rocks are often not differentiated in geological mapping, but are roughly equal volumetrically136, with the uppermost Beacon Supergroup formations having a Ferrar-like isotopic signature139. We hence assume a 60% Ferrar, 40% Beacon mixture is representative.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Kernel density estimate plots for literature measurements of rock ɛNd compared to measurements on fine-grained Miocene detritus from Site U1521.

For references and a list of all the data, see Supplementary Table 1. The height of the curve indicates the density of measurements and n the total number of samples analysed. Colour scheme is identical to Fig. 1, with sediments in grey.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Kernel density estimates for hornblende 40Ar/39Ar ages compared to zircon U-Pb ages younger than 1500 Ma.

The two dating methods are show in red and blue, respectively. Bold letters correspond with those in Fig. 3. The positions of major peaks and number of grains analysed are labelled in the corresponding colours. Stratigraphic position is shown in Fig. 2.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Close up of the Site U1521 interval with a West Antarctic provenance.

The stratigraphic log (a) is displayed alongside the percentage of reworked dinocysts (b), basalt clast fraction (c), relative abundance of smectite (d), Nd isotope data (e) and Fe/Ti ratios determined by X-ray fluorescence scanning (f).

Extended Data Fig. 8 Correlation of Site U1521 magnetostratigraphic tie points.

Shown are correlations between the AND-2A record11, Site U152126 and the GPTS49.

Extended Data Table 1 Age tie points for Site U1521 below 75 mbsf
Extended Data Table 2 Values used in the erosion rate calculation

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains information on the lithologies at IODP Site U1521, before summarising the rock types and tectonic history of the Ross Sea sector. We also provide a more detailed discussion of our sediment provenance datasets, plus suggested provenance interpretations for other lithological units. Additional supplementary methods are also described.

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Supplementary Table 1

Compiled Nd and Sr isotope data from literature sources are presented in this excel spreadsheet. These data were used to interpret the isotope ratios measured at Site U1521 and to create Extended Data Figures 4 and 5. References are given in a separate tab.

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Marschalek, J.W., Zurli, L., Talarico, F. et al. A large West Antarctic Ice Sheet explains early Neogene sea-level amplitude. Nature 600, 450–455 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04148-0

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