Scientists used 50 years of declassified spy satellite imagery from 1963 to 2012 to create the first long-term record of changes in the terminus of outlet glaciers - where they meet the sea - along 3355 miles of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet's coastline.
The East Antarctic Ice Sheet holds the majority of the world's ice and enough to raise global sea levels by more than 164ft.
Using measurements from 175 glaciers, researchers at Durham University's geography department were able to show the glaciers underwent rapid and synchronised periods of advance and retreat which coincided with cooling and warming.
The team said this suggested that large parts of the ice sheet, which reaches thicknesses of more than 2.5 miles, could be more susceptible to changes in air temperatures and sea-ice than was originally believed.
Durham University's Dr Chris Stokes said: "We know that these large glaciers undergo cycles of advance and retreat that are triggered by large icebergs breaking off at the terminus, but this can happen independently from climate change.
"It was a big surprise therefore to see rapid and synchronous changes in advance and retreat, but it made perfect sense when we looked at the climate and sea-ice data.
"When it was warm and the sea-ice decreased, most glaciers retreated, but when it was cooler and the sea-ice increased, the glaciers advanced."
The findings are published in the journal Nature.