Ancient penguin bones reveal unprecedented shrinkage in key Antarctic glaciers

By | June 9, 2022

Antarctica’s Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers are losing ice more quickly than they have at any time in the last few thousand years, ancient penguin bones and limpet shells suggest.

Scientists are worried that the glaciers, two of Antarctica’s fastest-shrinking ones, are in the process of unstable, runaway retreat. By reconstructing the history of the glaciers using the old bones and shells, researchers wanted to find out whether these glaciers have ever been smaller than they are today.

“If the ice has been smaller in the past, and did readvance, that shows that we’re not necessarily in runaway retreat” right now, says glacial geologist Brenda Hall of the University of Maine in Orono. The new result, described June 9 in Nature Geoscience, “doesn’t give us any comfort,” Hall says. “We can’t refute the hypothesis of a runaway retreat.”

Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers sit in a broad ocean basin shaped like a bowl, deepening toward the middle. This makes the ice vulnerable to warm currents of dense, salty water that hug the ocean floor (SN: 4/9/21). Scientists have speculated that as the glaciers retreat farther inland, they could tip into an irreversible collapse (SN: 12/13/21).  That collapse could play out over centuries and raise the sea level by roughly a meter.

A series of small ridges in the rocky terrain between the foreground boulders and background snow on islands roughly 100 kilometers from Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in Antarctica.
Researchers dated ancient shorelines (seen here as the series of small ridges in the rocky terrain between the foreground boulders and background snow) on islands roughly 100 kilometers from Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in Antarctica to help figure out if the glaciers are in the process of unstable, runaway retreat.James Kirkham

To reconstruct how the glaciers have changed over thousands of years, the researchers turned to old penguin bones and shells, collected by Scott Braddock, a glacial geologist in Hall’s lab, during a research cruise in 2019 on the U.S. icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer.

One afternoon, Braddock clambered from a bobbing inflatable boat onto the barren shores of Lindsey 1 — one of a dozen or more rocky islands that sit roughly 100 kilometers from where Pine Island Glacier terminates in the ocean. As he climbed the slope, his boots slipped over rocks covered in penguin guano and dotted with dingy white feathers. Then, he came upon a series of ridges — rocks and pebbles that were piled up by waves during storms thousands of years before — that marked ancient shorelines.

Twelve thousand years ago, just as the last ice age was ending, this island would have been entirely submerged in the ocean. But as nearby glaciers shed billions of tons of ice, the removal of that weight allowed Earth’s crust to spring up like a bed mattress — pushing Lindsey 1 and other nearby islands out of the water, a few millimeters per year.

As Lindsey 1 rose, a series of shorelines formed on the edges of the island — and then were lifted, one after another, out of reach of the waves. By measuring the ages and heights of those stranded shorelines, the researchers could tell how quickly the island had risen. Because the rate of uplift is determined by the amount of ice being lost from nearby glaciers, this would reveal how quickly Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers had retreated — and whether they had gotten smaller than they are today and then readvanced.

Braddock dug into the pebbly ridges, collecting ancient cone-shaped limpet shells and marble-sized fragments of penguin bones deposited when the shorelines formed. Back in Maine, he and his colleagues radiocarbon dated those objects to estimate the ages of the shorelines. Ultimately, the researchers dated nearly two dozen shorelines, spread across several islands in the region.

These dates showed that the oldest and highest beach formed 5,500 years ago. Since that time, up until the last few decades, the islands have risen at a steady rate of about 3.5 millimeters per year. This is far slower than the 20 to 40 millimeters per year that the land around Pine Island and Thwaites is currently rising, suggesting that the rate of ice loss from nearby glaciers has skyrocketed due to the onset of rapid human-caused warming, after thousands of years of relative stability.

“We’re going into unknown territory,” Braddock says. “We don’t have an analog to compare what’s going on today with what happened in the past.”

Slawek Tulaczyk, a glaciologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, sees the newly dated shorelines as “an important piece of information.” But he cautions against overinterpreting the results. While these islands are 100 kilometers from Pine Island and Thwaites, they are less than 50 kilometers from several smaller glaciers — and changes in these closer glaciers might have obscured whatever was happening at Pine Island and Thwaites long ago. He suspects that Pine Island and Thwaites could still have retreated and then readvanced a few dozen kilometers: “I don’t think this study settles it.”