Scientists have long suspected that 125,000 years ago, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed, drowning a world not much warmer than today in 3 meters of rising tides. But hard evidence of whether such a collapse occurred—and if it did, how fast the melt went—has remained scarce.
Next week, the National Science Foundation will fund a 5-year project, costing more than $3 million, that will seek evidence of this collapse from gases trapped in tiny bubbles encased in a 2.5 kilometer-long tube of ice. The core drilling, likely to start in 2023, will target Hercules Dome, an expanse of ice 400 kilometers from the South Pole. Hercules sits at the saddle between the continent’s western and eastern ice sheets; if the western one collapsed, “Hercules Dome would be sitting on the waterfront, so to speak,” says Eric Steig, the project’s principal investigator and a glaciologist at the University of Washington, Seattle.
The Eemian, the last warm period between the ice ages, lasting from 129,000 to 116,00 years ago, is one of the best analogs for modern Earth. Temperatures were about 1° warmer than now, yet sea levels were 6 meters to 9 meters higher. And recent work, some still unpublished, has suggested much of this melt must have come from Antarctica. For more information: