News Release

ODP scientists say no large Northern Hemisphere ice sheets 41 million years ago

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Joint Oceanographic Institutions

New research to test global ice volume approximately 41.6 million years ago shows that ice caps at this time, if they existed at all, would have been small and easily accommodated on Antarctica.

The findings contradict a recent controversial suggestion that Earth was extensively glaciated at this time despite having been much warmer than today, most likely because of high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. In an article published in Nature on 23 August, researchers using pinhead-sized fossils (foraminifera) – collected from sediments deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean, 380 km north of Suriname, South America – say large continental ice sheets did not exist in both hemispheres around 41 million years ago. Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Expedition 207 explored and sampled the Central Atlantic’s Demerara Rise in January and February of 2003.

This result is more in keeping with other geological records and climate model results suggesting that the threshold for ice sheet inception would have been crossed earlier in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern Hemisphere because the South Pole has a continent sitting over it (Antarctica) whereas the North Pole has an ocean (the Arctic).

Paul Wilson, lead proponent of ODP Expedition 207 explained, “The beauty of the new results is that they resolve a big problem. How can there have been more ice than today during an interval that was much warmer than today" The answer is that there was not more ice – that idea was a mistake based on inadequate data. The results give us renewed confidence in our understanding of the sequence of geological events and thus the controls on ice sheet existence.” Wilson is on the faculty of the School of Ocean & Earth Science at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

“The research is a classic example of the amazing way in which the Earth System is so intricately integrated,” said co-proponent Dick Norris of University of California, San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Isn’t it a marvelous thing that we can learn so much about the polar continental ice caps by examining tiny fossils that lived on the sea floor at the equator.”



A predecessor to the current Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, the Ocean Drilling Program was an international scientific endeavor into the history of the ocean basins, the nature of climate change, the composition and structure of ocean crust and sediments and life that exists beneath the seafloor.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) ( is an international marine research program that explores Earth's history and structure recorded in seafloor sediments and rocks, and monitors subseafloor environments. Through multiple platforms, IODP scientists explore the program’s principal themes: the deep biosphere, environmental change, and solid earth cycles. Two lead agencies, the U.S. National Science Foundation and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology support the IODP 10-year science plan. Other support comes from the European Consortium on Ocean Research Drilling (ECORD), the People’s Republic of China – Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Republic of Korea. Overall, 21 member nations participate in IODP.

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