Scientists Peer into Antarctica's Past to See Future Climate

Rough waters off Antarctica

Credit: John Beck, IODP/TAMU
The research vessel JOIDES Resolution encountered rough seas.

4/29/2010

New results from a research expedition in Antarctic waters may provide critical clues to understanding one of the most dramatic periods of climate change in Earth's history.

Some 53 million years ago, Antarctica was a warm, sub-tropical environment. During this same period, known as the "greenhouse" or "hothouse" world, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels exceeded those of today by ten times.

Then suddenly, Antarctica's lush environment transitioned into its modern icy realm.

Newly acquired climate records tell a tale of this long-ago time. The records were recovered from Antarctica, preserved in sediment cores retrieved during the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Wilkes Land Glacial History Expedition from Jan. 4 - March 8, 2010.

Wilkes Land is the region of Antarctica that lies due south of Australia, and is believed to be one of the most climate-sensitive regions of the polar continent.

In only 400,000 years--a mere blink of an eye in geologic time--concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide there decreased. Global temperatures dropped. Ice sheets developed. Antarctica became ice-bound.

 How did this change happen so abruptly, and how stable can we expect ice sheets to be in the future?

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