The clay mineral footprint of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the Amundsen Sea during the last 6 Ma

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

Abstract

Computer-model based predictions of future sea-level rise caused by the melting of polar ice sheets in response to global warming suffer from large uncertainties arising from limited knowledge of ice-sheet stability. Our proposed research directly addresses this problem by investigating the vulnerability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and contributes to a more reliable risk estimation of its future rapid melting ("collapse"). The bed of the WAIS is largely grounded below sea level and slopes towards the interior of the Antarctic continent, making it prone to melting under warm climatic conditions. Current rapid ice loss observed in the Amundsen Sea sector of the WAIS, especially of Thwaites Glacier, which is a major conduit of ice flow within the WAIS, may mark the onset of its collapse over the next few centuries, resulting in dramatic sea level rise over the coming decades. A total WAIS collapse would raise global sea level by 3.3-5 metres and cause flooding of low-lying coastal areas worldwide, with devastating environmental, economic and societal consequences.
Our project will investigate changes in the size of the WAIS during the last six million years by investigating very fine grains that its glaciers had scraped off the underlying bedrock, before transporting them to the Antarctic coast. Here, the grains were released into the ocean and then transported further offshore before they were finally deposited on the seafloor of the Amundsen Sea. Our main objective is to find evidence, whether, when and under which climatic conditions the WAIS collapsed in the past. Some reconstructions of past global sea levels, computer-model simulations and a few geological data, suggest that the WAIS collapsed repeatedly during the past. However, all these findings are either conflicting, or do not provide the time of the last WAIS collapse, which makes it impossible to identify the climatic factors triggering its collapse. Moreover, new results suggest that the past sea-level highstands alternatively resulted from collapse of the Greenlandic Ice Sheet in combination with partial melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the much larger 'sibling' of the WAIS.
We propose to analyse two unique, several hundred meters long sedimentary sequences, that were cored on the seabed of the Amundsen Sea during the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) cruise Exp379 in early 2019. Here, in the deep sea of the Amundsen Sea, ocean currents had accumulated fine-grained sediment particles into a feature several hundred metres high with a shape resembling that of a dune on a beach or in a desert. The main difference between this so-called "sediment drift" and a dune is that ocean bottom currents, rather than wind, transported and deposited the grains, which then built up the drift over millions of years, and the size of these particles is silt and clay rather than sand. We intend to investigate the mineralogical composition of the clay fraction of these drift sediments. Over previous years, we had mapped the clay mineralogical composition of modern seafloor sediments along the WAIS coast, which allowed us to 'fingerprint' the grains delivered to the ocean by the various glaciers, and to recognise that the particles supplied by Thwaites Glacier are characterised by a distinct fingerprint. Initial shipboard-analyses on the two Exp379 cores revealed that this fingerprint is often present in the drift sediments, but sometimes it is absent, indicating that Thwaites Glacier did not erode rocks during the times, when the corresponding sediments were deposited. This can only be explained by the absence of grounded ice in the area of the continent covered by the glacier today. As ice-sheet models suggest that any disappearance of Thwaites Glacier may initiate a total WAIS collapse, our intended study will not only answer the questions, how (in-)stable the WAIS really is, but also, whether Thwaites Glacier is the "Achilles' heel" of the WAIS.

Planned Impact

The PI will engage scientific users of the project results by actively seeking collaborations, giving presentations about his findings at (inter-)national conferences and workshops, including the Exp379 post-cruise meeting in autumn 2020 (depending on funding), publishing papers in peer-reviewed, high-impact journals and making the datasets available to the scientific community in open-access databases (PANGAEA, UK Polar Data Centre). He will work with the BAS Communications Team to develop a comprehensive communications, stakeholder and public engagement programme for the project. In his role as member on the steering committee of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) programme "Past Antarctic Ice Sheet Dynamics (PAIS)", he will feed his research directly into reports on risk estimates of future ice-sheet collapse and assessment reports of the impacts of global change published by PAIS and/or its successor programme "Antarctic Ice Dynamics and Sea Level Change (AIDSL)" (programme name tbc).
The PI will add engaging new web content about the project as "News Story" to the BAS website (the BAS website, on which the PI had posted blog entries about IODP Exp379 during the course of the expedition, regularly attracts 75,000 visitors per month), the "Palaeo-Environments, Ice Sheets and Climate Change (PICC)" team homepage, the IODP website and the website for the "Thwaites Offshore Research - THOR" project, which is part of the NSFPLR-NERC funded International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration program. Project-related web content will promote and explain the research in plain language to a wide audience. Newsworthy stories about peer-reviewed science will be widely distributed in press releases, Planet Earth online and the UK IODP Newsletters. Furthermore, the PI will contribute to UKRI/NERC/BAS educational initiatives, e.g. by giving talks to groups of school children.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Our results suggest that, in comparison to today, the supply of sediment material, which had been eroded by glaciers in the hinterland of the Amundsen Sea continental shelf, to the IODP Exp379 drill sites on the continental rise may have been reduced during warm times of the last 800 thousand years. This finding indicates that during past warm periods in Earth's history, when no additional man-made warming was at work, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have been even smaller than at present. Our study may help to explain higher global sea levels recorded for some of those past warm periods and may also suggest that the ongoing mass loss currently observed for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will continue over the coming decades, centuries and millennia and contribute significantly to future sea-level rise. However, additional analyses on the drill cores studied by us will be required to verify these conclusions. Initial results of our own investigations and work in progress by collaborating scientists furthermore indicate that, similar to today, southward flow of relatively warm deep water towards the West Antarctic coast was the main driver of ice loss during past warm times.
Exploitation Route When published, these findings can be used to constrain numerical ice-sheet models which aim to predict the magnitude and rate of future global sea-level rise from ice-sheet melting in the polar regions.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Construction,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

 
Description Analysing clay mineral assemblages from IODP Exp379 Site U1532 and U1533 
Organisation University of Leipzig
Department Institute for Geophysics & Geology
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Analysis of clay minerals on X-ray diffractograms of the clay sediment fraction (<2 micron)
Collaborator Contribution Preparation of bulk sediment samples for separating the clay fraction (<2 micron) and generation of X-ray diffractograms
Impact n/a (ongoing project)
Start Year 2019
 
Description Analysing smectite composition in selected samples from IODP Exp379 Sites U1532 and U1533 
Organisation Yonsei University
Country Korea, Republic of 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of clay mineral assemblage data for samples from Sites U1532 and U1533 and provision of sediment samples from conventional sediment cores collected in the Amundsen Sea
Collaborator Contribution Provision of smectite compositional data for samples from Sites U1532 and U1533 as well as for sediment samples retrieved with conventional cores from the Amundsen Sea
Impact n/a (still ongoing)
Start Year 2019
 
Description Analysis of detailed grain-size and clay mineral assemblage changes in Late Quaternary sediments from IODP Exp379 Sites U1532 and U1533 
Organisation Tongji University
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of clay mineral assemblage data for Late Quaternary sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Collaborator Contribution Provision of detailed grain-size data (sortable silt) for Late Quaternary sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Impact n/a (still ongoing)
Start Year 2019
 
Description Analysis of detailed grain-size and clay mineral assemblage changes in Late Quaternary sediments from IODP Exp379 Sites U1532 and U1533 
Organisation UiT The Arctic University of Norway
Country Norway 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of clay mineral assemblage data for Late Quaternary sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Collaborator Contribution Provision of detailed grain-size data (sortable silt) for Late Quaternary sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Impact n/a (still ongoing)
Start Year 2019
 
Description Analysis of geochemical and clay mineralogical provenance changes in Late Quaternary sediments from IODP Exp379 Sites U1532 and U1533 
Organisation University of Southampton
Department Ocean and Earth Science
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of clay mineral assemblage data for Late Quaternary sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Collaborator Contribution Provision of spliced core depths and XRF-scanner data for Late Quaternary sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Impact n/a (still ongoing)
Start Year 2019
 
Description Analysis of grain size and geochemical and clay mineralogical provenance changes in Pliocene sediments from IODP Exp379 Sites U1532 and U1533 
Organisation Montclair State University
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of clay mineral assemblage data for Pliocene sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Collaborator Contribution Provision of grain size and XRF-scanner data for Pliocene sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Impact n/a (still ongoing)
Start Year 2019
 
Description Analysis of rockmagnetic parameters and clay mineral provenance changes in Pliocene sediments from IODP Exp379 Sites U1532 and U1533 
Organisation University of Bremen
Department MARUM
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of clay mineral assemblage data for Pliocene sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Collaborator Contribution Provision of rock magnetic data for Pliocene sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Impact n/a (still ongoing)
Start Year 2019
 
Description Integrating sedimentologal data from IODP Exp379 Sites U1532 and U1533 with seismic profiles from the Amundsen Sea continental margin 
Organisation Alfred-Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research
Country Germany 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Provision of sedimentological data for Late Miocene to Holocene sediments from Sites U1532 and U1533
Collaborator Contribution Integration of sedimentological data with seismic profiles from the continental rise and linking rise stratigraphy to shelf stratigraphy
Impact n/a (still ongoing)
Start Year 2020