In recent years, global warming has had a significant impact on the Antarctic ice sheets. New research led by the Alfred Wegener Institute has shed light on the formation of the “eternal” ice in Antarctica. The study revealed that permanent glaciation of Antarctica began around 34 million years ago, with East Antarctica being the first region to be covered in ice. It was not until at least 7 million years later that ice was able to advance towards the West Antarctic coast. This indicates a significant difference in the reaction of East and West Antarctica to external forcing, as highlighted in the study published in the journal Science.

The researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, along with international collaborators, used sediment samples from drill cores to reconstruct the history of the Antarctic ice sheet. The study revealed that West Antarctica remained ice-free during the first major phase of Antarctic glaciation, while East Antarctica experienced the onset of permanent glaciation. Further analysis using paleoclimate modeling showed that the coastal regions of East Antarctic Northern Victoria Land were ideal for the formation of permanent ice, due to moist air masses reaching the Transantarctic Mountains. The ice sheet then spread rapidly into the East Antarctic hinterland, but took several million years to reach West Antarctica.

The findings of the study have important implications for our understanding of global climate dynamics. The research team found that even a slight warming can cause the ice in West Antarctica to melt, highlighting the vulnerability of this region to climate change. The results also provide valuable insight for climate models, allowing for more accurate simulations of how permanently glaciated areas impact global climate. This is particularly crucial in the face of potential future climate change, as highlighted by lead researcher Dr. Johann Klages.

The researchers were able to make these groundbreaking discoveries with the help of innovative technology. The MARUM-MeBo70 drill rig, developed at MARUM in Bremen, was used to retrieve a unique drill core from the seabed off the West Antarctic Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. This cutting-edge technology allowed the researchers to access deep sediments that were previously inaccessible using conventional drilling methods. The drill core provided crucial insights into the history of the Antarctic ice sheet, filling a significant knowledge gap in our understanding of the region.

The research conducted by the international team led by the Alfred Wegener Institute has significantly advanced our understanding of the formation of the Antarctic ice sheets. The study highlights the unique responses of East and West Antarctica to external forcing, providing valuable insights for climate modeling and our understanding of global climate dynamics. The findings underscore the importance of continued research in Antarctica to monitor and assess the impact of climate change on this critical region.


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