The ice and climate history of Antarctica

Dr Johann Philipp Klages, sedimentologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

Sediment cores

Climate history

Ice sheets


The climate of our Earth has changed steadily and, in some cases, fundamentally throughout Earth’s history. Such radical climate changes - which we may face again in the near future - are, however, quite rare in the context of human existence and therefore pose great challenges for us.

Global ice sheets are crucial for a better general understanding of climate dynamics during times of change, as they not only serve as Earth’s gigantic refrigerator, but also store such large amounts of water that sea levels could rise by several tens of metres globally. Polar regions in particular react very sensitively to climatic transitions and are therefore an early indicator for such changes. Weather and climate records covering the last decades and centuries are far from being sufficient to put current rapid changes in a long-term climatic context. However, such context is urgently needed in order to distinguish natural fluctuations from man-made ones.

Our work therefore focuses on the long-term ice sheet and climate history of the icy Antarctic continent. Through complex recovery and analysis of sediment cores along the Antarctic continental margin with research icebreakers and integration with geophysical data of the seabed morphology and geometry, we enable a four-dimensional reconstruction of Antarctic ice sheet and climate dynamics over periods of millions of years to the present day. These data serve as spatiotemporal benchmarks for calibrating climate models, which is critical to make simulations of future climate conditions more reliable.