Antarctica’s Ice Sheet Sensitivity to Warming 23 to 14 Million Years Ago

Antarctic ice sheet sensitivity to atmospheric CO2 variations in the early to mid-Miocene

Richard LevyDavid HarwoodFabio FlorindoFrancesca SangiorgiRobert TripatiHilmar von EynattenEdward GassonGerhard KuhnAradhna TripatiRobert DeContoChristopher FieldingBrad FieldNicholas GolledgeRobert McKayTimothy NaishMatthew OlneyDavid PollardStefan SchoutenFranco TalaricoSophie WarnyVeronica WillmottGary ActonKurt PanterTimothy PaulsenMarco Taviani, and SMS Science Team

The Problem: The early to mid-Miocene (23 to 14 million years ago) is an interval of geologic time where atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations (about 280 to 500 parts per million) were similar to those that are projected for the coming decades under human-induced climate change. Thus, this interval of time is interesting for geologists because we can use the geologic record from this time to interpret how our oceans, atmosphere, and ice sheets ‘behave’ under warming scenarios. Understanding the extent to which the Earth will warm, weather patterns will change, and sea levels will rise in the coming decades can help scientists, the public, and policy makers prepare for our future. Related to sea level rises is understanding how much continental ice sheets, such as those on Greenland and Antarctica, will melt.

Map of Antarctica with a red dot denoting where the ANDRILL core was drilled.

In this study, geologists use several methods to determine how sensitive Antarctic ice sheets are to increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations 23 to 14 million years ago. The results from this study are useful in that we can determine how much Antarctic ice may melt in the coming decades, which would add to sea level rise.

Methods: To interpret how sensitive Antarctic ice is to atmospheric warming (or increased average global warming), the scientists use sediments obtained in a drilled core from the coastal margin of Antarctica (an ideal location to study the melting and growth of ice sheets). The core was drilled in 2006 and 2007 as part of the ANDRILL (ANtarctic DRILLing Project) scientific drilling project from the McMurdo sector of Antarctica. The core is approximately 1,138 meters long, and contain sediments that are dated at over 20 million years old!

This study is very unique and fun because the scientists use several proxies (or naturally-occurring records) to interpret what the margin of Antarctica looked like through time. The presence and abundance (or numbers) of plankton (such as foraminifera) and pollen grains indicate when the margin of Antarctica was warmer, and ice sheets had melted back. For example, when the ice around Antarctica melted back, this allowed more room and soil for plants to grow. The lithology, or general characteristics of the sediments and rocks collected in the ANDRILL core, was also used as a clue to the changing environment of Antarctica through the study interval. Just knowing the different sediment types through time is a very powerful proxy itself!

Results: Using all the different methods and proxies, the geologists were able to interpret how Antarctic ice sheets melted and re-grew through the Miocene interval. They determined that several times from 23 to 14 million years ago, ice grew and retreated inland. They found that Antarctic ice becomes very sensitive to small changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Four environmental motifs as defined by the authors of the study. The location of the ANDRILL core used in the study (A2A) is noted in each image. Notice how the ice sheet retreats from I to IV as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases through time.

To best illustrate their findings, the authors of this study created four ‘environmental motifs’. These are images of what the scientists think the Antarctic margin looked like through time. Note that there are only four motifs; these just capture the major environments that the scientists inferred from their data. There were likely other ‘in-between’ environments. But notice how dynamic the ice sheet around the Antarctic margin were: the ice melted and then re-grew quite a bit in response to warming and cooling events through the Miocene!

Why is this study important? This study highlights and solidifies the hypothesis that Antarctic ice sheets were very sensitive to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations during the Miocene. The findings of the study also indicate that Antarctic ice will behave similarly under increased warming predicted for Earth’s future. Melting ice will have a huge impact on sea level, which will make living on coastal lands hard or impossible due to flooding.

Citation: Levy, R. H., Harwood, D., Florindo, F., Sangiorgio, F., Tripati, R., von Eynatten, H., Gasson, E., Kuhn, G., Tripati, A., DeConto, R., Fielding, C., Field, B., Golledge, N., McKay, R.,, Naish, T., Olney, M., Pollard, D., Schouten, S., Talarico, F., Warny, S., Willmott, V., Acton, G., Panter, K., Paulsen, T., Taviani, M., and the SMS Science Team, 2016. Antarctic ice sheet sensitivity to atmospheric CO2 variations in the early to mid-Miocene. PNAS 113(13), 3453-3458. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516030113.

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