Arctic & Antarctica
ce flowing down West Antarctica’s Pope Glacier forms large crevasses. New research into Pope and nearby glaciers examines how accurately ocean-induced melting of ice shelves needs to be modeled to predict effects on glacial ice flow. Credit: Jane Beitler, CC BY 2.0

What’s Missing from Antarctic Ice Sheet Loss Predictions?

Accurately modeling melt rates in specific ice shelf locations is critical for forecasting how Antarctica’s ice sheet will respond to climate change.

Coastal Antarctica’s vast, floating ice shelves buttress against glacial flow of the Antarctic ice sheet into the ocean. However, relatively warm ocean waters are rapidly melting some ice shelves from beneath, leading to ice sheet retreat. This submarine melting is important particularly in West Antarctica, where the inland-deepening bedrock means this retreat could begin to accelerate, contributing greatly to sea level rise. New research by Goldberg et al. investigates a West Antarctic glacier system, pinpointing missing knowledge vital for predicting how shelf melt will affect the ice sheet.

Mathematical models of ice shelf melt rates are essential to predict resulting ice sheet loss. However, it has been unclear how accurately ice shelf models capture different melt rates in different shelf locations and how accurate these models need to be to make reliable ice sheet predictions.

To address these issues, the authors focused on West Antarctica’s Crosson and Dotson ice shelves, which, like several other ice shelves, are thinning from exposure to relatively warm Circumpolar Deep Water. This thinning may underpin decreased buttressing of three glaciers—Smith, Pope, and Kohler—that flow from the Antarctic ice sheet into the shelves.

The researchers used the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) General Circulation Model (MITgcm) to model melt rates beneath Crosson and Dotson, exploring several different mathematical representations of ocean physics and of the geometry of the cavities beneath the shelves where melting occurs. They also calculated real-world shelf melt rates using data from the satellites CryoSat-2 and Sentinel-1.

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