Lost Elephant Seal Colony Offers Clues to Ancient Climate Conditions

Contact: Brenda Hall (207) 581-2191; David Munson (207) 581-3777

ORONO, Maine — UMaine glacial geologist Brenda Hall’s accidental discovery more than ten years ago is proving to be an important key to understanding the ways in which the climate near the Antarctic coast has changed over time.

Searching for particles of organic matter while studying ancient shorelines along the Ross Sea, Hall and her team discovered tiny fragments of skin and fur from elephant seals, large marine mammals that are extremely rare in the Ross Sea area today. The find led to many more elephant seal remains in the years that followed, some of which are as much as seven thousand years old.

Because the modern climate is too cold to support an elephant seal colony, the discovery suggests that the climate conditions of the Ross Sea area have changed significantly over the last several thousand years.

Hall and her colleagues published a paper in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June that points to the seal remains as evidence for a warming period in the region, which they believe occurred between 2,300 and 1,100 years ago.

Important to more than just elephant seal researchers, Hall’s findings shed new light on the stability of Antarctic ice shelves, according to UMaine researcher George Denton.

“If a big ice shelf were to give way, the results could be catastrophic. Through her discovery of elephant seal remains over a widespread area where they do not exist today, she shows evidence not only that a warming occurred, but that the Ross Ice Shelf survived that event. It’s important because it speaks to the staying capacity of the ice shelf in the face of global warming,” Denton said.