Skip to main content

International Ocean Discovery Program
Expedition 379 Preliminary Report

Amundsen Sea West Antarctic Ice Sheet History

Development and sensitivity of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet tested from drill records of the Amundsen Sea Embayment1

18 January–20 March 2019

Karsten Gohl, Julia S. Wellner, Adam Klaus, and the Expedition 379 Scientists

Published May 2019

See the full publication in PDF.


The Amundsen Sea sector of Antarctica has long been considered the most vulnerable part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) because of the great water depth at the grounding line and the absence of substantial ice shelves. Glaciers in this configuration are thought to be susceptible to rapid or runaway retreat. Ice flowing into the Amundsen Sea Embayment is undergoing the most rapid changes of any sector of the Antarctic Ice Sheet outside the Antarctic Peninsula, including changes caused by substantial grounding-line retreat over recent decades, as observed from satellite data. Recent models suggest that a threshold leading to the collapse of WAIS in this sector may have been already crossed and that much of the ice sheet could be lost even under relatively moderate greenhouse gas emission scenarios.

Drill cores from the Amundsen Sea provide tests of several key questions about controls on ice sheet stability. The cores offer a direct record of glacial history offshore from a drainage basin that receives ice exclusively from the WAIS, which allows clear comparisons between the WAIS history and low-latitude climate records. Today, warm Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW) is impinging onto the Amundsen Sea shelf and causing melting of the underside of the WAIS in most places. Reconstructions of past CDW intrusions can assess the ties between warm water upwelling and large-scale changes in past grounding-line positions. Carrying out these reconstructions offshore from the drainage basin that currently has the most substantial negative mass balance of ice anywhere in Antarctica is thus of prime interest to future predictions.

The scientific objectives for this expedition are built on hypotheses about WAIS dynamics and related paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic conditions. The main objectives are

  1. To test the hypothesis that WAIS collapses occurred during the Neogene and Quaternary and, if so, when and under which environmental conditions;
  2. To obtain ice-proximal records of ice sheet dynamics in the Amundsen Sea that correlate with global records of ice-volume changes and proxy records for atmospheric and ocean temperatures;
  3. To study the stability of a marine-based WAIS margin and how warm deep-water incursions control its position on the shelf;
  4. To find evidence for earliest major grounded WAIS advances onto the middle and outer shelf;
  5. To test the hypothesis that the first major WAIS growth was related to the uplift of the Marie Byrd Land dome.

International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) Expedition 379 completed two very successful drill sites on the continental rise of the Amundsen Sea. Site U1532 is located on a large sediment drift, now called Resolution Drift, and penetrated to 794 m with 90% recovery. We collected almost-continuous cores from the Pleistocene through the Pliocene and into the late Miocene. At Site U1533, we drilled 383 m (70% recovery) into the more condensed sequence at the lower flank of the same sediment drift. The cores of both sites contain unique records that will enable study of the cyclicity of ice sheet advance and retreat processes as well as bottom-water circulation and water mass changes. In particular, Site U1532 revealed a sequence of Pliocene sediments with an excellent paleomagnetic record for high-resolution climate change studies of the previously sparsely sampled Pacific sector of the West Antarctic margin.

Despite the drilling success at these sites, the overall expedition experienced three unexpected difficulties that affected many of the scientific objectives:

  1. The extensive sea ice on the continental shelf prevented us from drilling any of the proposed shelf sites.
  2. The drill sites on the continental rise were in the path of numerous icebergs of various sizes that frequently forced us to pause drilling or leave the hole entirely as they approached the ship. The overall downtime caused by approaching icebergs was 50% of our time spent on site.
  3. An unfortunate injury to a member of the ship's crew cut the expedition short by one week.

Recovery of core on the continental rise at Sites U1532 and U1533 cannot be used to precisely indicate the position of ice or retreat of the ice sheet on the shelf. However, these sediments contained in the cores offer a range of clues about past WAIS extent and retreat. At Sites U1532 and U1533, coarse-grained sediments interpreted to be ice-rafted debris (IRD) were identified throughout all recovered time periods. A dominant feature of the cores is recorded by lithofacies cyclicity, which is interpreted to represent relatively warmer periods variably characterized by higher microfossil abundance, greater bioturbation, and higher counts of IRD alternating with colder periods characterized by dominantly gray laminated terrigenous muds. Initial comparison of these cycles to published records from the region suggests that the units interpreted as records of warmer time intervals in the core tie to interglacial periods and the units interpreted as deposits of colder periods tie to glacial periods.

The cores from the two drill sites recovered sediments of purely terrigenous origin intercalated or mixed with pelagic or hemipelagic deposits. In particular, Site U1533, which is located near a deep-sea channel originating from the continental slope, contains graded sands and gravel transported downslope from the shelf to the abyssal plain. The channel is likely the path of such sediments transported downslope by turbidity currents or other sediment-gravity flows. The association of lithologic facies at both sites predominantly reflects the interplay of downslope and contouritic sediment supply with occasional input of more pelagic sediment. Despite the lack of cores from the shelf, our records from the continental rise reveal the timing of glacial advances across the shelf and thus the existence of a continent-wide ice sheet in West Antarctica at least during longer time periods since the late Miocene.

Cores from both sites contain abundant coarse-grained sediments and clasts of plutonic origin transported either by downslope processes or by ice rafting. If detailed provenance studies confirm our preliminary assessment that the origin of these samples is from the plutonic bedrock of Marie Byrd Land, their thermochronological record will potentially reveal timing and rates of denudation and erosion linked to crustal uplift. The chronostratigraphy of both sites enables the generation of a seismic sequence stratigraphy not only for the Amundsen Sea rise but also for the western Amundsen Sea along the Marie Byrd Land margin through a connecting network of seismic lines.

1Gohl, K., Wellner, J.S., Klaus, A., and the Expedition 379 Scientists, 2019. Expedition 379 Preliminary Report: Amundsen Sea West Antarctic Ice Sheet History. International Ocean Discovery Program.

This work is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license.