Skip to main content

International Ocean Discovery Program
Expedition 374 Preliminary Report

Ross Sea West Antarctic Ice Sheet History

Ocean-ice sheet interactions and West Antarctic Ice Sheet vulnerability: clues from the Neogene and Quaternary record of the outer Ross Sea continental margin1

4 January–8 March 2018

Robert M. McKay, Laura De Santis, Denise K. Kulhanek, and the Expedition 374 Scientists

Published May 2018

See the full publication in PDF.


The marine-based West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is currently retreating due to shifting wind-driven oceanic currents that transport warm waters toward the ice margin, resulting in ice shelf thinning and accelerated mass loss of the WAIS. Previous results from geologic drilling on Antarctica’s continental margins show significant variability in marine-based ice sheet extent during the late Neogene and Quaternary. Numerical models indicate a fundamental role for oceanic heat in controlling this variability over at least the past 20 My. Although evidence for past ice sheet variability has been collected in marginal settings, sedimentologic sequences from the outer continental shelf are required to evaluate the extent of past ice sheet variability and the associated oceanic forcings and feedbacks. International Ocean Discovery Program Expedition 374 drilled a latitudinal and depth transect of five drill sites from the outer continental shelf to rise in the eastern Ross Sea to resolve the relationship between climatic and oceanic change and WAIS evolution through the Neogene and Quaternary. This location was selected because numerical ice sheet models indicate that this sector of Antarctica is highly sensitive to changes in ocean heat flux. The expedition was designed for optimal data-model integration and will enable an improved understanding of the sensitivity of Antarctic Ice Sheet (AIS) mass balance during warmer-than-present climates (e.g., the Pleistocene “super interglacials,” the mid-Pliocene, and the late early to middle Miocene). The principal goals of Expedition 374 were to

  • Evaluate the contribution of West Antarctica to far-field ice volume and sea level estimates;
  • Reconstruct ice-proximal atmospheric and oceanic temperatures to identify past polar amplification and assess its forcings and feedbacks;
  • Assess the role of oceanic forcing (e.g., sea level and temperature) on AIS stability/instability;
  • Identify the sensitivity of the AIS to Earth’s orbital configuration under a variety of climate boundary conditions; and
  • Reconstruct eastern Ross Sea paleobathymetry to examine relationships between seafloor geometry, ice sheet stability/instability, and global climate.

To achieve these objectives, we will

  • Use data and models to reconcile intervals of maximum Neogene and Quaternary Antarctic ice advance with far-field records of eustatic sea level change;
  • Reconstruct past changes in oceanic and atmospheric temperatures using a multiproxy approach;
  • Reconstruct Neogene and Quaternary sea ice margin fluctuations in datable marine continental slope and rise records and correlate these records to existing inner continental shelf records;
  • Examine relationships among WAIS stability/instability, Earth’s orbital configuration, oceanic temperature and circulation, and atmospheric pCO2; and
  • Constrain the timing of Ross Sea continental shelf overdeepening and assess its impact on Neogene and Quaternary ice dynamics.

Expedition 374 was carried out from January to March 2018, departing from Lyttelton, New Zealand. We recovered 1292.70 m of high-quality cores from five sites spanning the early Miocene to late Quaternary. Three sites were cored on the continental shelf (Sites U1521, U1522, and U1523). At Site U1521, we cored a 650 m thick sequence of interbedded diamictite, mudstone, and diatomite, penetrating the Ross Sea seismic Unconformity RSU4. The depositional reconstructions of past glacial and open-marine conditions at this site will provide unprecedented insight into environmental change on the Antarctic continental shelf during the early and middle Miocene. At Site U1522, we cored a discontinuous upper Miocene to Pleistocene sequence of glacial and glaciomarine strata from the outer shelf, with the primary objective to penetrate and date seismic Unconformity RSU3, which is interpreted to represent the first major continental shelf–wide expansion and coalescing of marine-based ice streams from both East and West Antarctica. At Site U1523, we cored a sediment drift located beneath the westerly flowing Antarctic Slope Current (ASC). Cores from this site will provide a record of the changing vigor of the ASC through time. Such a reconstruction will enable testing of the hypothesis that changes in the vigor of the ASC represent a key control on regulating heat flux onto the continental shelf, resulting in the ASC playing a fundamental role in ice sheet mass balance.

We also cored two sites on the continental slope and rise. At Site U1524, we cored a Plio–Pleistocene sedimentary sequence on the continental rise on the levee of the Hillary Canyon, which is one of the largest conduits of Antarctic Bottom Water delivery from the Antarctic continental shelf into the abyssal ocean. Drilling at Site U1524 was intended to penetrate into middle Miocene and older strata but was initially interrupted by drifting sea ice that forced us to abandon coring in Hole U1524A at 399.5 m drilling depth below seafloor (DSF). We moved to a nearby alternate site on the continental slope (U1525) to core a single hole with a record complementary to the upper part of the section recovered at Site U1524. We returned to Site U1524 3 days later, after the sea ice cleared. We then cored Hole U1524C with the rotary core barrel with the intention of reaching the target depth of 1000 m DSF. However, we were forced to terminate Hole U1524C at 441.9 m DSF due to a mechanical failure with the vessel that resulted in termination of all drilling operations and a return to Lyttelton 16 days earlier than scheduled. The loss of 39% of our operational days significantly impacted our ability to achieve all Expedition 374 objectives as originally planned. In particular, we were not able to obtain the deeper time record of the middle Miocene on the continental rise or abyssal sequences that would have provided a continuous and contemporaneous archive to the high-quality (but discontinuous) record from Site U1521 on the continental shelf. The mechanical failure also meant we could not recover sediment cores from proposed Site RSCR-19A, which was targeted to obtain a high-fidelity, continuous record of upper Neogene and Quaternary pelagic/hemipelagic sedimentation. Despite our failure to recover a shelf-to-rise transect for the Miocene, a continental shelf-to-rise transect for the Pliocene to Pleistocene interval is possible through comparison of the high-quality records from Site U1522 with those from Site U1525 and legacy cores from the Antarctic Geological Drilling Project (ANDRILL).

1 McKay, R.M., De Santis, L., Kulhanek, D.K., and the Expedition 374 Scientists, 2018. Expedition 374 Preliminary Report: Ross Sea West Antarctic Ice Sheet History. International Ocean Discovery Program, 374.​10.14379/​