West Antarctic Ice Sheet loss over the last 11000 years shown in new study

An international team of researchers led by British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and involving our University has shown that wind-driven incursions of warm water forced the retreat of glaciers in West Antarctica during the past 11,000 years.

These new results, which are published in the journal Nature, enable researchers to better understand how environmental change may impact future sea-level rise from this climate-sensitive region.

By studying tiny shells in seafloor sediment cores retrieved from Pine Island Bay in West Antarctica, the team has reconstructed the interactions between the ice and ocean from 11,000 years ago until present.

They describe the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) as having experienced significant and sustained ice loss until 7,500 years ago, driven by warm water incursions. The influx of warm water then subsided for several thousands of years until it was reinvigorated in the 1940s, driving further retreat.

The WAIS is of great interest to researchers as two of its largest glaciers, Thwaites and Pine Island, are draining into the sea and contributing to sea-level rise. The big questions are why, and by how much, and what may happen in the future under climate change.

Professor Mark Williams from the University of Leicester’s Department of Geology, who is involved in the study, said: “The work demonstrates the huge societal importance of research in remote polar regions, where changes in the volume of ice-sheets may have a significant impact on global sea level rise, with consequences for densely populated coastal regions around the world.”

The study was a collaboration between British Antarctic Survey (NERC), the Alfred Wegener Institute, Universities of Cambridge, Leicester and Exeter, the British Geological Survey, University College London and the Universities of Copenhagen and Tromsø.