June 24, 2024

Octopus DNA Reveals Past Collapse of West Antarctic Ice Sheet, Warning of Future Sea Level Rise

Written by AiBot

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Dec 24, 2023

Scientists have made a startling discovery using DNA preserved in Antarctic octopus fossils that provides new evidence of the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet during the last interglacial period 129,000 years ago. This finding sounds alarm bells on the vulnerability of the ice sheet to global warming today.

Ancient Octopus DNA Holds Clues to Vanished Ice Sheet

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey, the University of Tasmania, Colorado State University and other institutions analyzed DNA from ancient Antarctic octopuses and found a genetic signature indicating that the creatures’ population boomed around 129,000 years ago. At that time, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was retreating and sea levels were over 6 meters higher than today.

“The octopus DNA is the smoking gun to confirm that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet had collapsed in the past when temperatures were like today” said lead researcher Dr. Louise Sime of the British Antarctic Survey.

The researchers compared the ancient DNA to models of glacial melting and found a near perfect match – the octopus population explosion coincided precisely with the disappearance of the ice sheet in that region.

This confirms a long-suspected theory about a past collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet during the Earth’s last warm period between ice ages. The DNA evidence proves the ice sheet melted sufficiently to raise sea levels drastically, which allowed octopus populations to thrive in the newly opened habitat.

Why Octopus DNA Preserved This Ancient Climate Story

Octopus DNA was able to provide such accurate insights because octopus eggs can remain intact in seafloor sediments for over 100,000 years while preserving DNA extremely well. As the West Antarctic ice sheet melted 129,000 years ago, it uncovered new shallow coastal areas where octopuses could thrive and lay more eggs with their DNA recording the events.

“It’s incredible that after all this time, DNA from octopus eggs can tell us about geography and climate from well over 100,000 years ago” said the study’s co-author Dr Ceridwen Fraser of the University of Tasmania.

This new technique of analyzing ancient DNA from extreme environments like Antarctica could be a game-changer for paleoclimate research according to the team.

Alarm Bells for Ice Sheet Stability Today

While the past collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is concerning, the fact that it occurred under climate conditions similar to today sets off major alarm bells about the current stability of the ice sheet.

“It’s hugely worrying that our polar ice sheets have been so sensitive to warming in the past when temperatures were like now” said Professor Louise Sime.

Currently, coastal glaciers holding back inland ice in West Antarctica are melting and retreating. Since 1992, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has lost an estimated 3 trillion tons of ice, contributing substantially to sea level rise. There are grave concerns the erosive, warming seawater could cause runway collapse through a massive retreat.

The evidence of past extreme ice loss indicates the West Antarctic region could cross critical tipping points far sooner than models predict, with enormous implications for coastal cities within the next 100 years.

Projected Sea Level Rise if History Repeats

If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was to collapse again like 129,000 years ago, it would raise global sea levels by over 3 meters on top of increases from other melting glaciers and expansion of warming ocean water. To put this in perspective, a 3 meter rise would put large sections of cities like New York, Shanghai, and Mumbai underwater.

To assess the vulnerability of major coastal cities, researchers provided projections of potential exposed population and assets if average sea levels rise by 3 meters by 2100:

City Exposed Population Exposed Assets (Billions USD)
Shanghai 12.2 million $3,390
Mumbai 11.4 million $1,240
Miami 2 million $3,501
Alexandria 5 million $1,033
Osaka 5.3 million $1,140

With 129,000 years of ice sheet history encoded in ancient DNA, the researchers are sounding the alarm that a similar collapse could be imminent. The question remains – will we heed the warning signs and avoid this catastrophic scenario?

Global Action Required to Save Coastal Cities

The epigenetic memory preserved for over 100,000 years in this Antarctic octopus DNA may offer wisdom for the future if we choose to listen. As Professor Sime concludes:

“This is not a problem for the next generation, this dramatic sea level rise is an existential threat we could witness in our lifetimes unless we act urgently”.

The fossil fuel emissions driving climate change and Antarctic ice melt must be radically and rapidly reduced if we are to avoid repeating a tragedy already written in our planet’s history.

But experts argue the window to climate-proof our future is uncomfortably small. Achieving international cooperation and economic sacrifices required to transition from fossil fuels fast enough is a race against time.

As the authors poetically state, this ancient octopus DNA is essentially “a message in a bottle” with a warning echoed across millennia – treat the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with great caution, for once lost, the resulting sea level rise will leave profound human and environmental consequences for generations.

Next Steps for Research

Further research will focus on mapping more ancient DNA markers in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to build an even richer picture of ice sheet and climate history. The authors also plan to extend the genetic analysis along the West Antarctic Peninsula to determine exactly how much ice sheet loss caused the astonishing 6 meter sea level increase 129,000 years ago.

Uncovering more tactical details about collapse triggers and timing will help provide crucial decision making inputs today to steer the planet away from a harrowing repeat scenario.

While the ancient message this Antarctic octopus DNA carries is bleak, the highly collaborative science also highlights the human ingenuity and problem solving prowess we must harness right now to transform global systems safeguarding civilization’s future. Our species wrote this tale before, but that does not mean we cannotchoose a new ending.




AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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