Lawver & Gahagan (1998; 2003) hypothesized, based on sea level records and the isostatically adjusted bedrock surface of Antarctica, the existence of a Trans-Antarctic Seaway linking the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea, between the Antarctic peninsula and the Ellsworth Mountains, in the Paleogene.

Has any other evidence confirming or infirming the existence of such a seaway been found since then? If so, do we have an idea of when it opened and closed?

Lawver, L. A., Gahagan, L. M., 1998. Opening of Drake Passage and and its impact on Cenozoic ocean circulation. In Crowley, T. C. & Burke, K. C., Tectonic boundary conditions for climate reconstructions, Oxford monographs on geology and geophysics, 39: 212-227.
Lawver, L. A., Gahagan, L. M., 2003. Evolution of Cenozoic seaways in the circum-Antarctic region. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 198: 11-37.


1 Answer 1


Barnes & Hillenbrand (2010) argue that there is faunal evidence for a late-Quaternary trans-Antarctic seaway. From the abstract:

We investigated biological evidence for past connectivity between different regions of Antarctica by comparing the composition of modern bryozoan assemblages from the continental margin around Antarctica. Surprisingly, we found most similarity between two areas which are not currently connected – the shelves of the Weddell Sea (WS) and Ross Sea (RS). We evaluated three hypotheses to explain this and conclude that bryozoans most likely dispersed through a trans-Antarctic seaway that opened in response to a WAIS collapse and connected the WS and RS shelves. These bryozoans must have survived glaciations(s) during subsequent ice ages in refuges, whereas they were wiped out in most other regions of the Antarctic shelf. After the last glacial period, bryozoan assemblages could freely disperse between many of the regions we examined (e.g. Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetland Islands), which has allowed recolonization of areas in which bryozoans had been eradicated during the last ice age. For the bryozoans on the WS and RS shelves to be more similar than those which are in close proximity means the trans-Antarctic seaway may have been as late as the last few interglacials.

There are some other folk in agreement, in particular Strugnell et al. (2012) on the topic of genetics of an Antarctic octopus (yes, really); and Vaughan et al. (2011) review available data and find strong biogeographical evidence for the existence of such a trans-Antarctic seaway, with four possible candidates and extensive discussion of when it might most recently have been open:

The methods currently at our disposal do not allow us to constrain, with confidence, which recent interglacial saw the last open West Antarctic seaways. However, given that during the last interglacial (MIS 5e), air temperature in Antarctica was substantially warmer than present for several thousand years [Sime et al., 2009] and at the same time, ice-loss from Antarctica almost certainly contributed to higher global sea levels [Kopp et al., 2009], it would appear that MIS 5e is a strong candidate.

In summary: biogeography and octopuses say yes.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 Thanks. I had no idea that people thought this (putative) seaway was still open in the Quaternary. That would imply complete collapses of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the Pleistocene/Holocene though. $\endgroup$
    – plannapus
    May 1, 2014 at 5:06
  • $\begingroup$ I accepted this answer because it did answer the question: they are evidences for such a seaway as an instable feature when WAIS collapsed. Nonetheless I'm still hoping for other answers that would target this seaway when it was a stable feature (if it ever was). $\endgroup$
    – plannapus
    May 5, 2014 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, didn't pick up that you were after evidence of a stable feature! I'll see if I can turn anything else up, and look forward to other answers :-) $\endgroup$
    – kaberett
    May 5, 2014 at 8:03
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah i didn't mention it in the question because it didn't actually occurred to me that this seaway would reopen everytime the WAIS collapsed :) $\endgroup$
    – plannapus
    May 5, 2014 at 8:05

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