A widespread theory in paleoclimatology suggests that changes in freshwater discharge to the Nordic (Greenland, Norwegian, and Icelandic) Seas from ice sheets and proglacial lakes over North America played a role in triggering episodes of abrupt climate change during deglaciation (21–8 ka) by slowing the strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning circulation (AMOC). Yet, proving this link has been problematic, as climate models are unable to produce centennial-to-millennial–length reductions in overturning from short-lived outburst floods, while periods of iceberg discharge during Heinrich Event 1 (ca. 16 ka) may have occurred after the climate had already begun to cool. Here, results from a series of numerical model experiments are presented to show that prior to deglaciation, sea ice could have become tens of meters thick over large parts of the Arctic Basin, forming an enormous reservoir of freshwater independent from terrestrial sources. Our model then shows that deglacial sea-level rise, changes in atmospheric circulation, and terrestrial outburst floods caused this ice to be exported through Fram Strait, where its subsequent melt freshened the Nordic Seas enough to weaken the AMOC. Given that both the volume of ice stored in the Arctic Basin and the magnitude of the simulated export events exceed estimates of the volumes and fluxes of meltwater periodically discharged from proglacial Lake Agassiz, our results show that non-terrestrial freshwater sources played an important role in causing past abrupt climate change.

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