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Stability of the Antarctic Ice Sheet during the pre-industrial Holocene

Abstract

The rate and magnitude of the Antarctic Ice Sheet (AIS) contribution to global sea-level rise beyond 2100 ce remains highly uncertain. Past changes of the AIS, however, offer opportunities to understand contemporary and future ice sheet behaviour. In this Review, we outline how the AIS evolved through the pre-industrial Holocene, 11,700 years ago to 1850 ce. Three main phases of ice sheet behaviour are identified: a period of rapid ice volume loss across all sectors in the Early and Mid Holocene; a retreat inland of the present-day ice sheet margin in some sectors, followed by readvance; and continued ice volume loss in several sectors during the past few millennia, and in some areas up to and into the industrial era. Global sea levels rose by 2.4–12 m owing to the period of rapid Antarctic ice loss and possibly fell by 0.35–1.2 m owing to subsequent readvance. Changes in the AIS during the Holocene were likely driven by similar processes to those acting today and predicted for the future, which are associated with oceanic and atmospheric conditions as well as bed topography. Further work is required to better understand these processes and to quantify Antarctica’s contribution to past sea-level change.

Key points

  • Multiple lines of evidence indicate that the Antarctic Ice Sheet (AIS) underwent periods of ice volume loss and gain in the Holocene that affected global sea levels.

  • Rapid ice loss occurred in all ice sheet sectors during the Early to Mid Holocene, contributing between 2.4 and 12 m to the rise in global mean sea level (GMSL).

  • Ice sheet readvance occurred in two sectors during the Holocene, which might have caused a fall in global sea levels of 0.35 m, or possibly 1.2 m.

  • The ice sheet was mostly at or near its present-day geometry by the Late Holocene, but ice loss and gain continued in some areas into the industrial era.

  • Ice loss was likely caused by oceanic warming, sea-level rise, retrograde bed topography and atmospheric changes, and ice gain was possibly caused by glacial isostatic adjustment and/or climate variability.

  • Improved understanding of the AIS in the Holocene will be achieved through targeted data collection, and developments in chronological techniques and numerical modelling.

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Fig. 1: Past, present and future sea-level change.
Fig. 2: Records of Holocene ice thickness change.
Fig. 3: Records of grounding line migration and response to ice load change.
Fig. 4: Modelled ice volume change in the Holocene.
Fig. 5: Overview of Antarctic Ice Sheet change in the Holocene.
Fig. 6: Patterns of global sea-level change due to Holocene Antarctic ice volume change.

Data availability

The data shown in Figs. 1,2,3,4 and 6 and the code used to analyse the data and generate the figures can be found at https://github.com/rs-jones/antarctica-holocene.

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Acknowledgements

R.S.J. is supported by the Australian Research Council (ARC) under grant number DE210101923. J.S.J. is supported by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) grants NE/K012088/1 and NE/S006710/1. Y.L. is supported by China Scholarship Council–Durham University joint scholarship. J.A.S. is supported by NERC grant NE/M013081/1. This work was supported by ARC SRIEAS Grant SR200100005 Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future, Australia, and forms part of the British Antarctic Survey programme ‘Polar Science for Planet Earth’ funded by the NERC, UK.

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R.S.J. conceptualized the article, drafted the manuscript and produced the figures. J.S.J., Y.L., A.N.M., J.P.S., J.A.S., E.R.T. and P.L.W. contributed to the assessment of literature, interpretation of data and discussion of section content, and Y.L. carried out the sea-level modelling for Fig. 6. All authors reviewed the manuscript prior to submission.

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Jones, R.S., Johnson, J.S., Lin, Y. et al. Stability of the Antarctic Ice Sheet during the pre-industrial Holocene. Nat Rev Earth Environ 3, 500–515 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00309-5

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