Antartica's Medieval Warm Period

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Hall et al. (2010) write, “over the past 50 years, the Antarctic Peninsula warmed ~2°C” and resultant rapid ice breakups “have destroyed several small, thin ice shelves fringing the Antarctic Peninsula (i.e., Cook and Vaughan, 2009, and references therein),” leading them to ask, “is the recent warming of the Antarctic Peninsula unique in the Holocene?”

In an effort to place the current ice recession in a broader context, the three researchers “examined organic-rich sediments exposed by the recent retreat of the Marr Ice Piedmont on western Anvers Island near Norsel Point,” where glaciers “have been undergoing considerable retreat in response to the well-documented warming.” There, they “obtained moss and reworked marine shells from natural sections within 26 meters of the present ice front,” as well as “both peat and reworked shells from sediments exposed in a tunnel beneath the residual ice mass,” samples of which were radiocarbon-dated and the results converted to calendar years.

The results they obtained by these means indicated peat from the overrun sediments dated to between 707 ± 36 and 967 ± 47 cal. yr B.P.,” which led them to conclude, “ice was at or behind its present position at ca. 700–970 cal. yr B.P. and during at least two earlier times, represented by the dates of shells, in the mid-to-late Holocene.” Then, in language pure and simple, the three researchers say their findings imply “the present state of reduced ice on the western Antarctic Peninsula is not unprecedented.” This leads them to pose another important question: “How widespread is the event at 700–970 cal. yr B.P.?”

In answering their own query, the researchers respond that (1) “Khim et al. (2002) noted a pronounced high-productivity (warm) event between 500 and 1000 cal. yr B.P. in magnetic susceptibility records from Bransfield Basin,” (2) “dates of moss adjacent to the present ice front in the South Shetland Islands (Hall, 2007) indicate that ice there was no more extensive between ca. 650 and 825 cal. yr B.P. than it is now,” (3) “evidence for reduced ice extent at 700–970 cal. yr B.P. is consistent with tree-ring data from New Zealand that show a pronounced peak in summer temperatures (Cook et al., 2002),” (4) “New Zealand glaciers were retracted at the same time (Schaefer et al., 2009),” and (5) their most recent findings “are compatible with a record of glacier fluctuations from southern South America, the continental landmass closest to Antarctica (Strelin et al., 2008).” In light of these several observations, it would appear much of the southernmost portion of the Earth likely experienced a period of significantly enhanced warmth within the broad timeframe of the planet’s global MWP. This interval of warmth occurred when there was far less CO2 and methane in the atmosphere than there is today.


Cook, A.J. and Vaughan, D. 2009. Overview of areal changes of the ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula over the past 50 years. The Cryosphere Discussions 3: 579–630.

Cook, E., Palmer, J., and D’Arrigo, R. 2002. Evidence for a “Medieval Warm Period” in a 1100-year tree-ring reconstruction of past austral summer temperatures in New Zealand. Geophysical Research Letters 29: 10.1029/2001GL014580.

Hall, B. 2007. Late-Holocene advance of the Collins Ice Cap, King George Island, South Shetland Islands. The Holocene 17: 1253–1258.

Hall, B.L., Koffman, T., and Denton, G.H. 2010. Reduced ice extent on the western Antarctic Peninsula at 700–907 cal. yr B.P. Geology 38: 635–638.

Khim, B-K., Yoon, H.I., Kang, C.Y., and Bahk, J.J. 2002. Unstable climate oscillations during the Late Holocene in the Eastern Bransfield Basin, Antarctic Peninsula. Quaternary Research 58: 234–245.

Schaefer, J., Denton, G., Kaplan, M., Putnam, A., Finkel, R., Barrell, D.J.A., Andersen, B.G., Schwartz, R., Mackintosh, A., Chinn, T., and Schluchter, C. 2009. High-frequency Holocene glacier fluctuations in New Zealand differ from the northern signature. Science 324: 622–625.

Strelin, J., Casassa, G., Rosqvist, G., and Holmlund, P. 2008. Holocene glaciations in the Ema Glacier valley, Monte Sarmiento Massif, Tierra del Fuego. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 260: 299–314.

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