Size of the West Antarctic ice sheet at the last glacial maximum: new constraints from the Darwin-Hatherton glacial system in the Transantarctic Mountains

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University of Auckland
An understanding of how the Antarctic ice sheet has reacted to natural global warming since the last glacial maximum (LGM) 18 to 22 thousand years ago (kya) is essential to accurately predict the response of the ice sheets to current and future climate change. Although global sea level rose by approximately 120 metres since the LGM, the contribution from and rate of change of the Antarctic ice sheets is by no means certain. Mackintosh et al (2007) have suggested that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) made an insignificant contribution to global sea-level rise between 13 and 7 kya raising interesting questions about the initial extent and response of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) during that time frame. Terrestrial evidence of these changes is restricted to a few ice-free areas where glacial landforms, such as moraines, show the extent of former ice advances. One such area is the Darwin-Hatherton glacial system where spectacular moraines preserve the advance and retreat of the glacial system during previous glacial cycles. Previous researchers have suggested that the WAIS was more than 1000 metres thicker than it is today at this location at the LGM. As part of the Latitudinal Gradient Project, we mapped the moraines of the Lake Wellman area bordering the Hatherton Glacier and collected samples for cosmogenic nuclide dating, a technique that is widely used to calculate the exposure history of the glacial landscape and the amount of time that the glacial debris has been exposed to cosmic rays and not covered by ice or other glacial debris. While the technique is very successful in mid latitudes, it is more challenging in Polar Regions. Our mapping has shown that ice in the past was at least 800 metres thicker than current ice levels in this area. Our cosmogenic data suggest that this was at least 2 million years ago but for the most part our data record, as expected, a complex history of exposure and re exposure of the ice free regions in this area in accordance with advance and retreat of the ice sheets. However, a cluster of ages of 35 to 40 thousand years record a single exposure event and indicate that the ice in this area was not as thick as previous estimates for the extent of ice at the LGM. These ages are recorded from moraine boulders that are located below a prominent moraine feature mapped as representing the LGM. These results raise further questions about the size of the Antarctic ice sheets at the LGM, their contribution to global sea level change and how the Antarctic ice sheets respond to global warming.
Antarctica, Greenhouse effect, Ice, Climatic change, Sea level, Glaciers
Storey, B., Hood, D., Fink, D., Shulmeister, J., & Riger-Kusk, M. (2009). Size of the West Antarctic ice sheet at the last glacial maximum: new constraints from the Darwin-Hatherton glacial system in the Transantarctic Mountains. Presentation to the Annual Antarctic Conference 2009 - "Sustaining the Gains of the International Polar Year", 1st – 3rd July 2009. In Proceedings of the Annual Antarctic Conference 2009, (p. 14). Auckland, New Zealand: University of Auckland.