Much of East Antarctica remained frozen during past 8 million years | 6/13/2018 | Staff
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Three major ice sheets are being closely watched by scientists as global temperatures increase, glaciers melt and sea levels rise. Of the three, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest potential contributor to sea-level rise.

But efforts to predict the East Antarctic's role in future sea-level rise have been hindered by an absence of data about the ice sheet's response to warming periods in the past. The geological history of the massive ice sheet—frozen both above and, in many places, below the ocean's surface—has been difficult to pinpoint.

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Using ultra-sensitive analytical measurements that have helped to reveal the history of other ice sheets, a team of researchers has found that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet did not retreat significantly over land during the warm Pliocene epoch, approximately 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago, when atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were similar to today's levels, a team of scientists reports today in the journal Nature.

The findings suggest that some ice on the southern continent could be stable in a warming climate, but do not signal that Antarctica can somehow backstop the impact of climate change, the researchers caution. Ongoing emissions mean that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will soon surpass the benchmark set during the Pliocene, the last time Earth experienced carbon dioxide levels higher than 400 parts per million.

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The study focused on terrestrial ice, the portion of the ice sheet that sits above the ocean and sequesters enough water to account for more than 110 feet of sea level rise were the ice sheet to melt away in response to rising air temperature. The other component of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is so-called marine-based ice, which sits below sea level and is thus directly affected by the ocean.

"Based on this evidence from the Pliocene, today's current carbon dioxide levels are not enough...
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