Modern global warming is likely to cause future melting of Earth's polar ice sheets that may result in dramatic sea-level rise. A possible collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) alone, which is considered highly vulnerable as it is mainly based below sea level, may raise global sea level by up to 5-6 m. Despite the importance of the WAIS for changes in global sea level, its response to the glacial-interglacial cycles of the Quaternary is poorly constrained. Moreover, the geological evidence for the disintegration of the WAIS at some time within the last ca. 750 kyr, possibly during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 11 (424-374 ka), is ambiguous. Here we present physical properties, palaeomagnetic, geochemical and clay mineralogical data from a glaciomarine sedimentary sequence that was recovered from the West Antarctic continental margin in the Amundsen Sea and spans more than the last 1 Myr. Within the sedimentary sequence, proxies for biological productivity (such as biogenic opal and the barium/aluminum ratio) and the supply of lithogenic detritus from the West Antarctic hinterland (such as ice-rafted debris and clay minerals) exhibit cyclic fluctuations in accordance with the glacial-interglacial cycles of the Quaternary. A prominent depositional anomaly spans MIS 15-MIS 13 (621-478 ka). The proxies for biological productivity and lithogenic sediment supply indicate that this interval has the characteristics of a single, prolonged interglacial period. Even though no proxy suggests environmental conditions much different from today, we conclude that, if the WAIS collapsed during the last 800 kyr, then MIS 15-MIS 13 was the most likely time period. Apparently, the duration rather than the strength of interglacial conditions was the crucial factor for the WAIS drawdown. A comparison with various marine and terrestrial climate archives from around the world corroborates that unusual environmental conditions prevailed throughout MIS 15-MIS 13. Some of these anomalies are observed in the pelagic Southern Ocean and the South Atlantic and might originate in major ice-sheet drawdown in Antarctica, but further research is required to test this hypothesis. Crown Copyright (C) 2008 Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved
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