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Volume 32 Issue 01

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Volume 32, No. 1
Pages 32 - 46


Keeping an Eye on Antarctic Ice Sheet Stability

By Carlota Escutia , Robert M. DeConto, Robert Dunbar, Laura De Santis, Amelia Shevenell, and Timothy Naish 
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Article Abstract

Knowledge of how the Antarctic Ice Sheet (AIS) responded in the geologic past to warming climates will provide powerful insight into its poorly understood role in future global sea level change. Study of past natural climate changes allows us to determine the sensitivity of the AIS to higher-than-present atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations and global temperatures, thereby providing the opportunity to improve the skill and performance of ice sheet models used for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) future projections.

Antarctic and Southern Ocean (south of 60°S latitude) marine sediment records obtained over the last 50 years by seven scientific ocean drilling expeditions have revolutionized our understanding of Earth’s climate system and the evolution and dynamics of the Antarctic ice sheets through the Cenozoic (0–65 million years ago). These records document an ice-free subtropical Antarctica between ~52 and 40 million years ago when CO2 was ~1,000 ppm; the initiation of continental-scale Antarctic ice sheets ~34 million years ago as CO2 dropped below 800 ppm; evidence for a dynamic, largely terrestrial, ice sheet driving global sea level changes of up to 40 m amplitude between 34 and 15 million years ago; and colder periods of highly dynamic, marine-based ice sheets contributing up to 20 m of global sea level rise when CO2 levels were in the range of 500–300 ppm between ~14 and 3 million years ago.

Notwithstanding these discoveries, paleoenvironmental records obtained around Antarctica are still limited in their geographical coverage and do not provide a basis for comprehensive understanding of how different sectors of Antarctica respond to climate perturbations. Transects of drill cores spanning ice-proximal to ice-distal environments across the continental margin and at sensitive locations that have been identified by models and recent observations are needed to fully understand temporal and spatial ice volume changes that result from complex ice sheet-ocean-atmosphere interactions. These records are also critical for reconstructing equator-to-pole temperature gradients through time to better understand global climate change, interhemispheric long-distance transmission of changes through the atmosphere and ocean (teleconnections), and the amplification of climate signals in the polar regions.

Future Antarctic scientific ocean drilling will remain key to obtaining records of past Antarctic Ice Sheet dynamics that can be integrated into coupled ice sheet-climate models for improved projections of sea level change. Thus, keeping an eye on ice sheet stability is critical for improving the accuracy and precision of predictions of future changes in global and regional temperatures and sea level rise.


Escutia, C., R.M. DeConto, R. Dunbar, L. De Santis, A. Shevenell, and T. Naish. 2019. Keeping an eye on Antarctic Ice Sheet stability. Oceanography 32(1):32–46, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2019.117.


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