A new approach to West Antarctic Ice Sheet evolution using blue-ice moraines on nunataks

Lead Research Organisation: Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC)
Department Name: SUERC


Did the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) survive the last interglacial? We propose to use nunataks as dipsticks of ice-sheet elevation change to help answer this question. One hypothesis is that the WAIS disappeared under last-interglacial conditions ~125,000 years ago when climatic and oceanic conditions were slightly warmer than those of the present day (Dynamic). Another hypothesis suggests the WAIS may have varied in elevation but that it persisted as a coherent ice sheet during the last interglacial (Stable). The co-existence of two opposing hypotheses implies that we have much to learn about the principal controls on ice-sheet stability. This uncertainty undermines confidence in our ability to predict the future of the WAIS and its effect on global sea-level change.

Important research on the WAIS relies on satellite observations which monitor changes in velocity and elevation over recent decades, while predictions of future changes rely on ice-sheet models. Both approaches would be enhanced if we knew what happened to the WAIS during the last glacial cycle. The longer term perspective tells of the trajectory of change upon which decadal changes are superimposed. Further, a history of elevation changes during a glacial cycle provides data with which to constrain and improve ice-sheet models.

Here we propose to test the two hypotheses using moraines that form on nunataks in blue-ice areas. Blue-ice areas result from strong downslope winds which are often funnelled in the vicinity of nunataks and ablate the ice surface. In response the ice flows into such ablation areas, sometimes bringing basal debris to the surface which is then deposited at the ice margin. Relict moraines occur on certain nunatak slopes above the present ice surfaces and are over 400,000 years old, suggesting that there is the potential to obtain a long record of ice elevation change.

This project brings together glaciologists, geomorphologists and geophysicists to work in the Heritage Range, a group of nunataks which protrude through the central WAIS dome. We will test predictions of the two competing hypotheses firstly by examining the processes of blue-ice moraine formation today using field survey and radar, and secondly by establishing the form and sediment characteristics of the moraines and their age. The latter will employ exposure-age dating, a technique that measures the time a rock has been at the surface and exposed to cosmic rays. By using more than one isotope we can establish times when a rock surface may have been buried by ice and thus there is the potential to reconstruct a rich history of ice elevation changes. Our hope is that the approach could be extended to other nunataks in Antarctica and provide widely dispersed evidence of elevation changes.

Planned Impact

Who might benefit from this research?
- Academia (international), Glaciology, climate change, geodesy, eustatic sea level, Antarctic biology, exposure-age dating.
- Business, especially insurance and marine engineering and renewables
- Public sector: environmental agencies (EPA, SEPA, SNH).
- Agencies dealing with adaptation (UKCCIP, SNIFFER, SCCIP, UK Adaptation Sub-Committee on Climate Change, Edinburgh Climate Change Centre)
- Third Sector
- Schools
- The public

How might they benefit?

The behaviour of the Antarctic Ice Sheet is a popular subject with the general public and also with journalists. It is a good way of engaging wider society in the science of climate change and its link to human prosperity and well being. It is an especially stimulating topic for schools.

The research has a bearing on predictions of sea level rise in the next 100 years or so. Evidence of either a dynamic response to glacial cycles or a more modest one can be used to constrain and improve sea-level predictions. The future behaviour of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is the least certain element in predictions of the rate and magnitude of sea-level rise. Reducing this uncertainty is important for environmental agencies dealing with coastal flooding, and for the Third sector dealing with environmental issues.

Commercial and Economic.
The offshore oil and gas, offshore wind, tidal, fishing, nuclear power and insurance industries all have a direct stake in the future rate and magnitude of sea-level rise.

Influencing public policy and legislation.
The future rise in sea level is of direct relevance for policy makers dealing with adaptation and issues such as coastal flooding.