Assessing the role of oceanic forcing in West Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat since the Last Glacial Maximum

Lead Research Organisation: NERC British Antarctic Survey
Department Name: Science Programmes


Accurate predictions of sea-level rise are critical if governments are to plan for the future in a warming world. For London and other low-lying parts of the UK, knowing when and by how much sea level will rise will determine when costly infrastructure like the Thames Barrier is upgraded. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified rapidly melting ice sheets as the main source of accelerating sea level rise and stated that collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will cause sea-level to rise at rates much higher than currently predicted.

Understanding the behaviour of glaciers flowing into the Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is key to the accuracy of such predictions. They represent one-third of the total discharge of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and are currently contributing to sea level rise at a significant and accelerating rate. It is widely understood that increased glacier melting in this region is driven by incursions of warm ocean water, called Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW). This warm water flows onto the continental shelf and beneath the floating parts of the glaciers where it melts the glacier ice. Measurements have shown that the temperature and volume of CDW in the Amundsen Sea has increased during the past decade, which has coincided with increased glacier melting and sea level rise. We also know that the arrival of CDW to the area is affected by the weather systems over the ocean which means that CDW is sensitive to changes in atmospheric conditions.

Although the idea that warm water is driving glacier retreat is now firmly established, it is unclear (and a factor limiting our ability to predict future changes) how the volume and temperature of CDW has varied over longer timescales. The current generation of predictive ice sheet models assume that melting of the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea will be maintained or increase in future. However with only two decades of ocean temperature data from the Amundsen Sea it is difficult to confirm whether the models are accurate.

Given the rate of ice loss in this area and the implications for sea defence planning worldwide, there is a fundamental need to understand the long-term history of CDW incursion and whether the ocean temperatures we see today are unique or have varied substantially in the past. This research will directly address this lack of knowledge by reconstructing ocean temperature in the Amundsen Sea over the past 25,000 years and its relationship to past ice sheet retreat.

To achieve this we will apply two independent methods to reconstruct past ocean temperatures from well-dated marine sediment cores from the Amundsen Sea. The first method uses specific organic remains (from marine microbes that live in the surface waters) whilst the second method uses the chemical composition of calcareous shells found in the sediments. Using these different techniques we will be able to reconstruct surface, sub-surface and deep water temperatures and compare them to well-dated records of ice sheet retreat over the past 25,000 years. If our results show that past ice sheet retreats coincided with warm ocean temperatures, then we can quantify the relationship between incursions of CDW and ice sheet retreat. One implication of this could be that modern changes are part of a long term 'trajectory' that needs to be incorporated into predictive models. On the other hand, if the timing of ice sheet retreat did not coincide with the presence of warm water, or that incursions of CDW has varied substantially in the past then this would also have significant implications for future predictions. Ultimately our data will help underpin the next generation of ice sheet models and in turn, well-validated ice sheet models will be able to better predict future sea-level rise. Overall this project will deliver significant improvements in our understanding of the sensitivity of ice sheets to incursions of warm water.

Planned Impact

1. Who will benefit?
Academics: Our project will deliver detailed information about ocean temperature over the past 25,000 years that will be useful to a range of academics and especially ice sheet modellers who have a role in producing local, regional and global sea-level projections (e.g. UK Climate Impacts Programme).

Government & policy makers: (1) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC is by far the most influential group synthesising and delivering sea-level rise projections to policy-makers; and (2) Governmental and non-governmental advisors (e.g. Dept. of Energy & Climate Change, UK Environment Agency), who monitor prediction of sea level change. They will use output from models constrained by our data.

Society: Melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and future sea-level rise is high on the public agenda having been widely reported in the UK and world media. Thus, we will have considerable potential to engage wider public interest.

NERC: Predicting the response of ice sheets to sea-level rise is key goal of NERC's strategic science policy. Critical to our understanding of the stability of ice sheets is the role of warm deep-water upwelling in driving both contemporary and past ice sheet changes. The proposed research will therefore help to meet objectives in NERC's science strategy and especially its Ice Sheet Stability programme (i.e. iSTAR-B & C)

2. How?
Academics: We will engage with the wider modelling community through our links with PP Pollard, who is currently a leading international expert in modelling the past retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the Amundsen Sea. Specifically, we plan to hold a one-day data-model integration workshop at the British Antarctic Survey. Our aim is to bring together ice sheet modellers from the UK and European community to discuss data and develop approaches to reduce uncertainties in sea-level predictions for the Amundsen Sea. Our records of ocean temperature and ice sheet retreat will be a key dataset for use in their models, and we will make it available for a future intercomparison exercise.

Government & policy makers: Our results will be published in peer-reviewed literature which the IPCC use as a primary basis for their work. We will write a Science Briefing Document for Government and submit a white paper to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting to demonstrate how our research outcomes are relevant to everyday lives. We will use these documents to engage with other non-governmental advisors (e.g. Living With Environmental Change partnership, UK Environment Agency) who closely monitor research regarding sea-level projections and who are effective at bringing scientific discovery to policy makers.

Society: To promote our findings to the public, and enthuse the next generation in science, PI Smith will become a STEM TEAM Ambassador for Cambridgeshire and give annual talks to local schools throughout the duration of the project. Regular science up-dates will be published via a project blog and Twitter account and we will include our results in the BAS schools pack, which provides an excellent educational material for schools.

NERC: PI Smith will produce a podcast and article for Planet Earth, NERC's online quarterly magazine, about the results of our research. In addition, Co-I Hendry has recently been elected to the NERC UK Polar Partnerships steering committee, which will ensure that our results reach a wider NERC community.


10 25 50
Description We have developed the first regional (Amundsen Sea) magnesium/calcium (Mg/Ca) temperature calibration. A manuscript (Mawbey et al., 2020) detailing this calibration was published in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. This allows ocean temperature to be derived from the geochemical analysis of certain calcareous micro-fossils (in this case the benthic foraminifera Trifarina sp.). We have also developed further understanding of the use of biomarkers (GDGTs) to establish absolute sub-surface ocean temperatures in the Amundsen Sea. A manuscript (Spence-Jones et al., in revision) detailing these results has been submitted Biogeosciences.
We anticipate two additional papers detailing the first downcore palaeo-temperature recconstructions (spanning the past ~20,000 years) for the Amundsen Sea:
1) Mawbey, Smith et al., in prep. Circumpolar Deep Water is the primary driver of ice sheet retreat.
2) Spencer-Jones, Smith et al., in prep. Environmental changes in the western Amundsen Sea during the past ~11,500 years.

I have also contributed to three project-related papers by colleagues at AWI, BAS and Imperial College:

1. Lamping, N., Müller, J., Esper, O., Hillenbrand, C.-D., Smith, J.A., Kuhn, G. (2020). Highly branched isoprenoids reveal onset of deglaciation followed by dynamic sea-ice conditions in the western Amundsen Sea, Antarctica. Quaternary Science Reviews 228, 16103.
2. Johnson, J., Schaefer, J., Roberts, S.J., Rood, D., Whitehouse, P., Pollard, D., Smith, J.A. (2020). Deglaciation of Pope Glacier implies widespread early Holocene ice sheet thinning in the Amundsen Sea sector of Antarctica. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 548,
3. Pereira, P.S., van de Flierdt, T., Hemming, S.R., Frederichs, T, Hammond, S.J., Brachfeld, S., Doherty, C., Kuhn, G., Smith, J.A., Klages, J.P., Hillenbrand, C.-D. (2020) The geochemical and mineralogical fingerprint of West Antarctica's weak underbelly: Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. Chemical Geology, 550. 15 pp. 10.1016/j.chemgeo.2020.119649
Exploitation Route Future attempts to derive accurate past (palaeo) ocean temperatures will rely on our calibrations and datasets. Thus the resulting publications will be transformative and well cited.
Sectors Education,Environment,Other

Description NSFPLR-NERC: THwaites Offshore Research (THOR)
Amount £839,421 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S006664/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 09/2023
Title Downcore Mg/Ca, d18O, d13C data from Amundsen Sea 
Description We have generated >150 Mg/Ca, d18O and d13C datapoints that will be used to reconstruct past ocean temperatures in the Amundsen Sea. This data will contribute to our knowledge of the past sensitivity of the WAIS to variations in warm water that will ultimately help underpin future predictioins about the contribution of the WAIS to sea-level rise. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The data will be published in summer/Autumn 2019 
Title Downcore biomaker data 
Description Databse of >150 biomaker (GDGT, IPL) information from numerous sediment core and water samples from the Amundsen Sea 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact These results will be published in 2019 
Description Advances in dating methods 
Organisation ETH Zurich
Country Switzerland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Dating marine sequences from glaci-proximal environments around Antarctica is challenging. We have collaborated with specialist Dr Lukas Wacker (ETH, Zurich) to improve this situation by applying multiple dating methods
Collaborator Contribution Implemented state-of-the-art radiocarbon dating methods (MICADAS)
Impact Papers are currently submitted/in-preparation
Start Year 2015
Description Circum-Antarctic core top calibration 
Organisation University of South Florida
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Co-ordinated an effort to improve core top calibration for Mg/Ca
Collaborator Contribution Partners at USF (and AWI Bremerhaven) supply samples from the East Antarctic margin and Weddell Sea respectively.
Impact Mawbey, Elaine M., Hendry, Katharine R., Greaves, Mervyn J., Hillenbrand, Claus-Dieter , Kuhn, Gerhard, Spencer-Jones, Charlotte L., McClymont, Erin L., Vadman, Kara J., Shevenell, Amelia E., Jernas, Patrycja E., Smith, James A. (2020). Mg/Ca-Temperature Calibration of Polar Benthic foraminifera species for reconstruction of bottom water temperatures on the Antarctic shelf. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 283. 54-66. 10.1016/j.gca.2020.05.027.
Start Year 2015
Description Collaboration with AWI 
Organisation Alfred-Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research
Country Germany 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Novel/innovative analytical methods to existing AWI samples.
Collaborator Contribution Supply samples, contextual information and expertise
Impact No outputs yet
Start Year 2015
Description Collaboration with Professor David Pollard, Penn State 
Organisation Penn State University
Department Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Established a working relationship over email. Organized a meet-up at BAS to discuss project and deliverables
Collaborator Contribution Prof. Pollard will deliver state-of-the-art ice sheet modelling to help answer the aims set out in our proposal in year 3-yr of the project
Impact Established a working relationship over email. Organized a meet-up at BAS to discuss project and deliverables
Start Year 2015