Over the past eight hundred thousand years, glacial–interglacial cycles oscillated with a period of one hundred thousand years (‘100k world’1). Ice core and ocean sediment data have shown that atmospheric carbon dioxide, Antarctic temperature, deep ocean temperature, and global ice volume correlated strongly with each other in the 100k world2–6. Between about 2.8 and 1.2 million years ago, glacial cycles were smaller in magnitude and shorter in duration (‘40k world’7). Proxy data from deep-sea sediments suggest that the variability of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the 40k world was also lower than in the 100k world8–10, but we do not have direct observations of atmospheric greenhouse gases from this period. Here we report the recovery of stratigraphically discontinuous ice more than two million years old from the Allan Hills Blue Ice Area, East Antarctica. Concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in ice core samples older than two million years have been altered by respiration, but some younger samples are pristine. The recovered ice cores extend direct observations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane, and Antarctic temperature (based on the deuterium/hydrogen isotope ratio δDice, a proxy for regional temperature) into the 40k world. All climate properties before eight hundred thousand years ago fall within the envelope of observations from continuous deep Antarctic ice cores that characterize the 100k world. However, the lowest measured carbon dioxide and methane concentrations and Antarctic temperature in the 40k world are well above glacial values from the past eight hundred thousand years. Our results confirm that the amplitudes of glacial–interglacial variations in atmospheric greenhouse gases and Antarctic climate were reduced in the 40k world, and that the transition from the 40k to the 100k world was accompanied by a decline in minimum carbon dioxide concentrations during glacial maxima.
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