Study in 'Science' points to collapse of West Antarctic ice sheet 120,000 years ago

22 december, 2023≈ 3 min read

There is an octopus out there carrying a serious warning about rising sea levels: The West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have completely collapsed 120,000 years ago, during the last interglacial period, when global temperatures were similar to those of today. The research, featuring Catarina Silva, co-author and researcher at the Department of Life Sciences (DCV) of the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the University of Coimbra (FCTUC), sheds light on the genetic evidence from the Pareledone turqueti species.

The study, published in the prestigious journal 'Science,' provides the first empirical evidence suggesting that the ice sheet may have reached a tipping point, even within the strict mitigation scenarios of 1.5°C to 2°C outlined in the United Nations' Paris Agreement.

According to Catarina Silva, the research helps to understand whether the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed in the recent past, when global temperatures were comparable to today's, thus increasing the accuracy of future global projections of sea level rise. Silva emphasises the relevance of this discovery, noting that a possible future total collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet could lead to a significant rise in global sea levels - predicted to be between 3 and 5 metres.

The researcher from the DCV's Centre for Functional Ecology (CFE) further adds that “The genetic analysis of the Pareledone turqueti octopus revealed that distinct populations exchanged genetic material, pointing to a gene flow made possible only if the West Antarctic ice sheet had collapsed completely during the last interglacial period”. This collapse would have opened sea routes between the Weddell, Amundsen, and Ross Seas, allowing octopuses to cross and exchange genetic material.

The findings of this study, led by researchers from James Cook University, Australia, will play a crucial role in guiding decision-making on adaptation and mitigation measures in coastal regions globally.

The scientific article is available at:

(Nota de imprensa elaborada por Sara Machado, FCTUC)