Cape Denison lies at the edge of the vast East Antarctic Ice Sheet with an ice volume equivalent to 53 metres of sea level rise. In spite of a century of work, there is a paucity of data on how the ice sheet has changed in the past, limiting our ability to compare current trends, or constrain ice-sheet and climate models. Further north, the landscape of the subantarctic islands suggest that the islands had been deeply incised by glaciers. But to glaciate these islands would need massively different conditions to today’s warm and wet maritime climate. How and when is largely unknown.
Drilling the ice overlooking Cape Denison
Exploring the peat-covered subantarctic islands for evidence of the last ice age (20,000 years ago)
The research program
The subantarctic islands provide a valuable record of the last Ice Age in the Southern Ocean. Whilst the islands show clear evidence of past glaciation, the timing and mechanisms behind Pleistocene environmental and climate changes remain uncertain. Here we present a multidisciplinary study of the islands – including marine and terrestrial geomorphological surveys, extensive analyses of sedimentary sequences, a comprehensive dating programme, and glacier flow line modelling – to investigate multiple phases of glaciation across the islands. We find evidence that the Auckland Islands hosted a small ice cap 384 000 ± 26 000 years ago (384±26 ka), most likely during Marine Isotope Stage 10, a period when the subtropical front was reportedly north of its present-day latitude by several degrees, and consistent with hemispheric-wide glacial expansion. Flow line modelling constrained by field evidence suggests a more restricted glacial period prior to the LGM that formed substantial valley glaciers on the Campbell and Auckland Islands around 72–62 ka. Despite previous interpretations that suggest the maximum glacial extent occurred in the form of valley glaciation at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; ∼21 ka), our combined approach suggests minimal LGM glaciation across the New Zealand subantarctic islands and that no glaciers were present during the Antarctic Cold Reversal (ACR; ∼15–13 ka). Instead, modelling implies that despite a regional mean annual air temperature depression of ∼5 ∘C during the LGM, a combination of high seasonality and low precipitation left the islands incapable of sustaining significant glaciation. We suggest that northwards expansion of winter sea ice during the LGM and subsequent ACR led to precipitation starvation across the middle to high latitudes of the Southern Ocean, resulting in restricted glaciation of the subantarctic islands.Download