Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet evolution during the Cenozoic Era

Bethan Joan Davies, Michael J. Hambrey, John L. Smellie, Jonathan L. Carrivick, Neil F. Glasser

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The Antarctic Peninsula region is currently undergoing rapid environmental change, resulting in the thinning, acceleration and recession of glaciers and the sequential collapse of ice shelves. It is important to view these changes in the context of long-term palaeoenvironmental complexity and to understand the key processes controlling ice sheet growth and recession. In addition, numerical ice sheet models require detailed geological data for tuning and testing. Therefore, this paper systematically and holistically reviews published geological evidence for Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet variability for each key locality throughout the Cenozoic, and brings together the prevailing consensus of the extent, character and behaviour of the glaciations of the Antarctic Peninsula region. Major contributions include a downloadable database of 186 terrestrial and marine calibrated dates; an original reconstruction of the LGM ice sheet; and a new series of isochrones detailing ice sheet retreat following the LGM.Glaciation of Antarctica was initiated around the Eocene/Oligocene transition in East Antarctica. Palaeogene records of Antarctic Peninsula glaciation are primarily restricted to King George Island, where glacigenic sediments provide a record of early East Antarctic glaciations, but with modification of far-travelled erratics by local South Shetland Island ice caps. Evidence for Neogene glaciation is derived primarily from King George Island and James Ross Island, where glaciovolcanic strata indicate that ice thicknesses reached 500-850m during glacials. This suggests that the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet draped, rather than drowned, the topography. Marine geophysical investigations indicate multiple ice sheet advances during this time. Seismic profiling of continental shelf-slope deposits indicates up to ten large advances of the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet during the Early Pleistocene, when the ice sheet was dominated by 40kyr cycles. Glacials became more pronounced, reaching the continental shelf edge, and of longer duration during the Middle Pleistocene. During the Late Pleistocene, repeated glacials reached the shelf edge, but ice shelves inhibited iceberg rafting. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) occurred at 18ka BP, after which transitional glaciomarine sediments on the continental shelf indicate ice-sheet retreat. The continental shelf contains large bathymetric troughs, which were repeatedly occupied by large ice streams during Pleistocene glaciations. Retreat after the LGM was episodic in the Weddell Sea, with multiple readvances and changes in ice-flow direction, but rapid in the Bellingshausen Sea. The late Holocene Epoch was characterised by repeated fluctuations in palaeoenvironmental conditions, with associated glacial readvances. However, this has been subsumed by rapid warming and ice-shelf collapse during the twentieth century.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-66
Number of pages37
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jan 2012


  • Antarctic Peninsula
  • Glaciation
  • Last Glacial Maximum
  • Neogene
  • Palaeogene
  • Quaternary


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