Ice sheet collapse closer than thought

How the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) responded to warmer climates in the geologic past has obvious relevance to our understanding of what its future could be as global temperatures rise due to human activities.

The marine-based West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is considered vulnerable to irreversible collapse under future climate trajectories, and its tipping point may lie within the mitigated warming scenarios of 1.5° to 2°C of the United Nations Paris Agreement. Knowledge of ice loss during similarly warm past climates could resolve this uncertainty, including the Last Interglacial when global sea levels were 5 to 10 meters higher than today and global average temperatures were 0.5° to 1.5°C warmer than preindustrial levels.

Using a panel of genome-wide, single-nucleotide polymorphisms of a circum-Antarctic octopus, we show persistent, historic signals of gene flow only possible with complete WAIS collapse. Our results provide the first empirical evidence that the tipping point of WAIS loss could be reached even under stringent climate mitigation scenarios.