Project Information
Collaborative Research: Testing the Linchpin of WAIS Collapse with Diatoms and IRD in Pleistocene and Late Pliocene Strata of the Resolution Drift, Amundsen Sea, Antarctica
Start Date:
End Date:
Part I, Non-technical Abstract
Concerns that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) might be susceptible to releasing its ice as giant icebergs into the Southern Ocean due to a warming climate, raising global sea level, were first expressed more than 40 years ago. To best-assess this threat, scientists need to know whether such events occurred in the geologically recent past, during warm intervals of past glacial-interglacial cycles. Ocean drilling near the most vulnerable sector of the WAIS, in 2019, yielded seafloor geologic records demonstrating times when icebergs dropped large volumes of sands and pebbles, called ice-rafted detritus (IRD) in deep water of the Amundsen Sea. Occurring together with IRD that was eroded from bedrock beneath the ice sheets, there are abundant microfossils of diatoms (algal plankton), which indicate high biological productivity in the open ocean. The new sediment cores provide a complete, uninterrupted record of a time of dramatic fluctuations of ice sheet extent that occurred over the last 3 million years. Therefore, they provide the means to obtain clear answers to the question whether ice sheet collapse occurred in the past and offering clues to its potential future. This project will investigate sediment intervals where IRD coincides with evidence of high diatom production, to test whether these two criteria indicate rapid ice sheet collapse. Geochemical analysis of IRD pebbles will help trace the source of the icebergs to likely on-land sites. By analyzing conditions of high diatom and IRD accumulation in deep ocean sediment, where local coastal influences can be avoided, we will assess oceanographic and climatic conditions associated with past ice sheet collapse events. Diatoms provide powerful evidence of temperature and ocean productivity changes in the past, that, when linked to time, can translate into rates of ice sheet drawdown. These results will provide critical data for designing, constraining and testing the next suite computer models that can determine the likelihood and timing of future ice sheet collapse in a warming world. The project will include training of undergraduate and graduate students from diverse backgrounds, and the public will be introduced to Antarctic science and engaged through several different outreach efforts.

Part 2, Technical Abstract

New drillcores from the Amundsen Sea, Antarctica (IODP Expedition 379) contain a continuous record of oceanographic changes and iceberg rafted debris (IRD) spanning the last 5 million years. This study aims to identify the signature of retreat/collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) in these continental margin, deep-sea sediments by quantitatively analyzing, in detail, diatom and IRD records across glacial-interglacial lithostratigraphic transitions to establish the timing and frequency of Late Pliocene and Pleistocene WAIS collapse events. The investigators will secure age constraints and diagnostic observations of marine paleoenvironmental conditions for selected interglacial intervals of cores from sites U1532 and U1533, using high resolution micropaleontology of diatom assemblages coupled with microstratigraphic analysis of IRD depositional events, while petrography, geochronology and thermochronology of iceberg rafted clasts will provide evidence of iceberg sources and pathways. Depositional paleotemperatures will be assessed via a new paleotemperature proxy based on quantitative assessment of morphologic changes in the dominant Southern Ocean diatom Fragilariopsis kerguelensis. Their results will contribute to parameterization of new ice sheet models that seek to reconstruct and forecast West Antarctic Ice Sheet behavior. This project will directly contribute to undergraduate education at an undergraduate-only college and at a public university that serves a demographic typified by first generation university students and underrepresented groups. Spanning geology, geochemistry, sedimentology, paleontology and paleoceanography, the proposed work will allow undergraduate students to develop diverse skills through hands-on research within a collaborative team that is dedicated to societally relevant research. The two graduate students will conduct original research and work alongside/mentor undergraduates, making for a well-rounded research experience that prepares them for success in future academic or employment sectors. The discoveries that come from this deep-sea record from West Antarctica will be communicated by students and investigators at national and international conferences and an array of public science outreach events.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
Person Role
Scherer, Reed Paul Investigator and contact
Siddoway, Christine
Antarctic Earth Sciences Award # 1939139
AMD - DIF Record(s)
Data Management Plan
None in the Database
Product Level:
2 (derived data)
Repository Title (link) Format(s) Status
USAP-DC Last Interglacial Southern Ocean paleothermometry from diatom morphometrics: Analysis and application of the F. kerguelensis Valve Rectangularity Sea Surface Temperature proxy. Comma-Separated Values (CSV); Microsoft Excel (OpenXML) exists
USAP-DC Pliocene diatom abundance, IODP 397-U1532 Microsoft Excel (OpenXML) exists

This project has been viewed 7 times since May 2019 (based on unique date-IP combinations)