Genetic studies of an Antarctic octopus reveal that the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) occurred in the Last Interglacial period, approximately 129,000 to 116,000 years ago, during a time when temperatures were roughly 1 degree Celsius (°C) higher than those before the industrial era. These results imply that even the slightest increases in temperature, as predicted by the most hopeful climate change mitigation scenarios, could lead to the disintegration of the WAIS and subsequent sea-level rise.
Climate change is driving unprecedented change to Earth’s cryosphere. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered particularly vulnerable to warming temperatures and may be headed towards irreversible collapse under future climate change trajectories. The ice sheet’s tipping point may lie within the current global climate targets of 1.5 to 2 °C. Total WAIS collapse would likely have devastating global ramifications. It’s estimated that WAIS collapse alone could raise the average global sea level by roughly 3 to 5 meters.
Antarctic Octopus Genetic Analysis
Understanding how the WAIS responded to warming climate in the past, like during the Last Interglacial period, when global sea levels were 5 to 10 meters higher and temperatures were ~0.5 to 1.5 °C warmer than preindustrial levels, could help resolve the fate of the WAIS in our rapidly warming future.
However, it remains unclear just how vulnerable the WAIS has been to rapid change in the past. Although a growing body of evidence seems to suggest that the WAIS may have collapsed during the Last Interglacial, current oceanographic and modeling studies have yielded conflicting and inconclusive results.
Here, Sally Lau and colleagues leverage a unique and unexpected dataset to address this question – the genetic history of Turquet’s octopus (Pareledone turqueti). Modern populations of the circum-Antarctic benthic octopus found in the Weddell, Amundsen, and Ross Seas are geographically isolated and separated by the WAIS.
Implications and Perspectives
Lau et al.sequenced genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphisms in 96 octopuses collected from around the Southern Ocean. Although the populations are genetically distinct, the authors discovered some signs of admixture, revealing a historical gene flow between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. Moreover, demographic modeling of these populations suggests that this admixture occurred during the Last Interglacial. Lau et al. argue that these persistent and historic signals of gene flow could only be possible if the two seas were connected by an interior open waterway where the WAIS now sits grounded below sea level, suggesting complete WAIS collapse during the Last Interglacial.
“Whether or not this analysis withstands further scrutiny and the test of time, the implications of this result pose some intriguing questions, including whether this history will be repeated, given Earth’s current temperature trajectory,” write Andrea Dutton and Rob DeConto in a related Perspective.
Reference: “Genomic evidence for West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse during the Last Interglacial” by Sally C. Y. Lau, Nerida G. Wilson, Nicholas R. Golledge, Tim R. Naish, Phillip C. Watts, Catarina N. S. Silva, Ira R. Cooke, A. Louise Allcock, Felix C. Mark, Katrin Linse and Jan M. Strugnell, 21 December 2023, Science.