Abstracts on Global Climate Change

Jul 2006

Geological and geomorphological insights into Antarctic ice sheet evolution

Sugden, DE Bentley, MJ Cofaigh, CO


Technical advances in the study of ice-free parts of Antarctica can provide quantitative records that are useful for constraining and refining models of ice sheet evolution and behaviour. Such records improve our understanding of system trajectory, influence the questions we ask about system stability and help to define the ice-sheet processes that are relevant on different time-scales. Here, we illustrate the contribution of cosmogenic isotope analysis of exposed bedrock surfaces and marine geophysical surveying to the understanding of Antarctic ice sheet evolution on a range of time-scales. In the Dry Valleys of East Antarctica, 3 He dating of subglacial flood deposits that are now exposed on mountain summits provide evidence of an expanded and thicker Mid-Miocene ice sheet. The survival of surface boulders for approximately 14 Myr, the oldest yet measured, demonstrates exceptionally low rates of subsequent erosion and points to the persistence and stability of the dry polar desert climate since that time. Increasingly, there are constraints on West Antarctic ice sheet fluctuations during Quaternary glacial cycles. In the Sarnoff Mountains of Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica, Be-10 and Al-26 cosmogenic isotope analysis of glacial erratics and bedrock reveal steady thinning of the ice sheet from 10 400 years ago to the present, probably as a result of grounding line retreat. In the Antarctic Peninsula, offshore analysis reveals an extensive ice sheet at the last glacial maximum. Based on radiocarbon dating, deglaciation began by 17 000 cal. yr BP and was complete by 9500 cal yr BP. Deglaciation of the west and east sides of the Antarctic Peninsula ice sheet occurred at different times and rates, but was largely complete by the Early Holocene. At that time ice shelves were less extensive on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula than they are today. The message from the past is that individual glacier drainage basins in Antarctica respond in different and distinctive ways to global climate change, depending on the link between regional topography and climate setting.

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