The West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) has long been considered vulnerable to rapid retreat and today parts are rapidly losing ice. Projection of future change in WAIS is, however, hampered by our poor understanding of past changes, especially during interglacial periods that could be analogs for the future, but which undoubtedly provide an opportunity for testing predictive models. We consider how ice-loss would open seaways across WAIS; these would likely alter Southern Ocean circulation and climate, and would broadly define the de-glacial state, but they may also have left evidence of their existence in the coastal seas they once connected. We show the most likely routes for such seaways, and that a direct seaway between Weddell and Ross seas, which did not pass through the Amundsen Sea sector, is unlikely. Continued ice-loss at present rates would open seaways between Amundsen and Weddell seas (A-W), and Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas (A-B), in around one thousand years. This timescale indicates potential future vulnerability, but also suggests seaways may have opened in recent interglacial periods. We attempt to test this hypothesis using contemporary bryozoan species assemblages around Antarctica, concluding that anomalously high similarity in assemblages in the Weddell and Amundsen seas supports recent migration through A-W. Other authors have suggested opening of seaways last occurred during Marine Isotope Stage 7a (209 ka BP), but we conclude that opening could have occurred in MIS 5e (100 ka BP) when Antarctica was warmer than present and likely contributed to global sea levels higher than today.
Authors: Vaughan, David G., Barnes, David K.A., Fretwell, Peter T., Bingham, Robert G.