We know that our planet has experienced warmer periods in the past, during the Pliocene geological epoch around three million years ago.
Our research, published today, shows that up to one third of Antarctica’s ice sheet melted during this period, causing sea levels to rise by as much as 20 metres above present levels in coming centuries.
We were able to measure past changes in sea level by drilling cores at a site in New Zealand, known as the Whanganui Basin, which contains shallow marine sediments of arguably the highest resolution in the world.
Using a new method we developed to predict the water level from the size of sand particle moved by waves, we constructed a record of global sea-level change with significantly more precision than previously possible.
The Pliocene was the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were above 400 parts per million and Earth’s temperature was 2°C warmer than pre-industrial times. We show that warming of more than 2°C could set off widespread melting in Antarctica once again and our planet could be hurtling back to the future, towards a climate that existed three million years ago.
Last week we saw unprecedented global protests under the banner of Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture climate strikes, as the urgency of keeping global warming below the Paris Agreement target of 2°C hit home. Thunberg captured collective frustration when she chastised the United Nations for not acting earlier on the scientific evidence. Her plea resonated as she reminded us that:
With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO₂ budget [1.5°C] will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years.
At the current rate of global emissions we may be back in the Pliocene by 2030 and we will have exceeded the 2°C Paris target. One of the most critical questions facing humanity is how much and how fast global sea levels will rise.
According to the recent special report on the world’s oceans and cryosphere by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), glaciers and polar ice sheets continue to lose mass at an accelerating rate, but the contribution of polar ice sheets, in particular the Antarctic ice sheet, to future sea level rise remains difficult to constrain.
If we continue to follow our current emissions trajectory, the median (66% probability) global sea level reached by the end of the century will be 1.2 metres higher than now, with two metres a plausible upper limit (5% probability). But of course climate change doesn’t magically stop after the year 2100.
To better predict what we are committing the world’s future coastlines to we need to understand polar ice sheet sensitivity. If we want to know how much the oceans will rise at 400ppm CO₂, the Pliocene epoch is a good comparison.
Back in 2015, we drilled cores of sediment deposited during the Pliocene, preserved beneath the rugged hill country at the Whanganui Basin. One of us (Timothy Naish) has worked in this area for almost 30 years and identified more than 50 fluctuations in global sea level during the last 3.5 million years of Earth’s history. Global sea levels had gone up and down in response to natural climate cycles, known as Milankovitch cycles, which are caused by long-term changes in Earths solar orbit every 20,000, 40,000 and 100,000 years. These changes in turn cause polar ice sheets to grow or melt.
While sea levels were thought to have fluctuated by several tens of metres, up until now efforts to reconstruct the precise amplitude had been thwarted by difficulties due to Earth deformation processes and the incomplete nature of many of the cycles.
Our research used a well-established theoretical relationship between the size of the particles transported by waves on the continental shelf and the depth to the seabed. We then applied this method to 800 metres of drill core and outcrop, representing continuous sediment sequences that span a time period from 2.5 to 3.3 million years ago.
We show that during the Pliocene, global sea levels regularly fluctuated between five to 25 metres. We accounted for local tectonic land movements and regional sea-level changes caused by gravitational and crustal changes to determine the sea-level estimates, known as the PlioSeaNZ sea-level record. This provides an approximation of changes in global mean sea level.
Our study also shows that most of the sea-level rise during the Pliocene came from Antarctica’s ice sheets. During the warm Pliocene, the geography of Earth’s continents and oceans and the size of polar ice sheets were similar to today, with only a small ice sheet on Greenland during the warmest period. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet would have contributed at most five metres to the maximum 25 metres of global sea-level rise recorded at Whanganui Basin.
Of critical concern is that over 90% of the heat from global warming to date has gone into the ocean. Much of it has gone into the Southern Ocean, which bathes the margins of Antarctica’s ice sheet.
Already, we are observing warm circumpolar deep water upwelling and entering ice shelf cavities in several sites around Antarctica today. Along the Amundsen Sea coast of West Antarctica, where the ocean has been heating the most, the ice sheet is thinning and retreating the fastest. One third of Antarctica’s ice sheet — the equivalent to up to 20 metres of sea-level rise — is grounded below sea level and vulnerable to widespread collapse from ocean heating.
Our study has important implications for the stability and sensitivity of the Antarctic ice sheet and its potential to contribute to future sea levels. It supports the concept that a tipping point in the Antarctic ice sheet may be crossed if global temperatures are allowed to rise by more than 2℃. This could result in large parts of the ice sheet being committed to melt-down over the coming centuries, reshaping shorelines around the world.
Scientists have long been concerned about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its contribution to global sea level rise. Much of West Antarctica’s ice lies below sea level, and warming ocean temperatures may lead to runaway ice sheet retreat.
This process, called marine ice sheet instability, has already been observed along parts of the Amundsen Sea region, where warming of the ocean has led to melting underneath the floating ice shelves that fringe the continent. As these ice shelves thin, the ice grounded on land flows more rapidly into the ocean and raises the sea level.
Although the Amundsen Sea region has shown the most rapid changes to date, more ice actually drains from West Antarctica via the Ross Ice Shelf than any other area. How this ice sheet responds to climate change in the Ross Sea region is therefore a key factor in Antarctica’s contribution to global sea level rise in the future.
Periods of past ice sheet retreat can give us insights into how sensitive the Ross Sea region is to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Our research, published today, argues that ocean warming was a key driver of glacial retreat since the last ice age in the Ross Sea. This suggests that the Ross Ice Shelf is highly sensitive to changes in the ocean.
Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated more than 1,000km in the Ross Sea region – more than any other region on the continent. But there is little consensus among the scientific community about how much climate and the ocean have contributed to this retreat.
Much of what we know about the past ice sheet retreat in the Ross Sea comes from rock samples found in the Transantarctic Mountains. Dating techniques allow scientists to determine when these rocks were exposed to the surface as the ice around them retreated. These rock samples, which were collected far from where the initial ice retreat took place, have generally led to interpretations in which the ice sheet retreat happened much later than, and independently of, the rise in air and ocean temperatures following the last ice age.
But radiocarbon ages from sediments in the Ross Sea suggest an earlier retreat, more in line with when climate began to warm from the last ice age.
To investigate how sensitive this region was to past changes, we developed a regional model of the Antarctic ice sheet. The model works by simulating the physics of the ice sheet and its response to changes in ocean and air temperatures. The simulations are then compared to geological records to check accuracy.
Our main findings are that warming of the ocean and atmosphere were the main causes of the major glacial retreat that took place in the Ross Sea region since the last ice age. But the dominance of these two controls in influencing the ice sheet evolved through time. Although air temperatures influenced the timing of the initial ice sheet retreat, ocean warming became the main driver due to melting of the Ross Ice Shelf from below, similar to what is currently observed in the Amundsen Sea.
The model also identifies key areas of uncertainty of past ice sheet behaviour. Obtaining sediment and rock samples and oceanographic data would help to improve modelling capabilities. The Siple Coast region of the Ross Ice Shelf is especially sensitive to changes in melt rates at the base of the ice shelf, and is therefore a critical region to sample.
Understanding processes that were important in the past allows us to improve and validate our model, which in turn gives us confidence in our future projections. Through its history, the ice sheet in the Ross Sea has been sensitive to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Currently, ocean warming underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is the main concern, given its potential to cause melting from below.
Challenges remain in determining exactly how ocean temperatures will change underneath the Ross Ice Shelf in the coming decades. This will depend on changes to patterns of ocean circulation, with complex interactions and feedback between sea ice, surface winds and melt water from the ice sheet.
Given the sensitivity of ice shelves to ocean warming, we need an integrated modelling approach that can accurately reproduce both the ocean circulation and dynamics of the ice sheet. But the computational cost is high.
Ultimately, these integrated projections of the Southern Ocean and Antarctic ice sheet will help policymakers and communities to develop meaningful adaptation strategies for cities and coastal infrastructure exposed to the risk of rising seas.
The ocean that surrounds Antarctica plays a crucial role in regulating the mass balance of the continent’s ice cover. We now know that the thinning of ice that affects nearly a quarter of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is clearly linked to the ocean.
The connection between the Southern Ocean and Antarctica’s ice sheet lies in ice shelves – massive slabs of glacial ice, many hundreds of metres thick, that float on the ocean. Ice shelves grind against coastlines and islands and buttress the outflow of grounded ice. When the ocean erodes ice shelves from below, this buttressing action is reduced.
While some ice shelves are thinning rapidly, others remain stable, and the key to understanding these differences lies within the hidden oceans beneath ice shelves. Our recently published research explores the ocean processes that drive melting of the world’s largest ice shelf. It shows that a frequently overlooked process is driving rapid melting of a key part of the shelf.
Rapid ice loss from Antarctica is frequently linked to Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW). This relatively warm (+1C) and salty water mass, which is found at depths below 300 metres around Antarctica, can drive rapid melting. For example, in the south-east Pacific, along West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea coast, CDW crosses the continental shelf in deep channels and enters ice shelf cavities, driving rapid melting and thinning.
Interestingly, not all ice shelves are melting quickly. The largest ice shelves, including the vast Ross and Filchner-Ronne ice shelves, appear close to equilibrium. They are largely isolated from CDW by the cold waters that surround them.
The contrasting effects of CDW and cold shelf waters, combined with their distribution, explain much of the variability in the melting we observe around Antarctica today. But despite ongoing efforts to probe the ice shelf cavities, these hidden seas remain among the least explored parts of Earth’s oceans.
It is within this context that our research explores a new and hard-won dataset of oceanographic observations and melt rates from the world’s largest ice shelf.
In 2011, we used a 260 metre deep borehole that had been melted through the north-western corner of the Ross Ice Shelf, seven kilometres from the open ocean, to deploy instruments that monitor ocean conditions and melt rates beneath the ice. The instruments remained in place for four years.
The observations showed that far from being a quiet back water, conditions beneath the ice shelf are constantly changing. Water temperature, salinity and currents follow a strong seasonal cycle, which suggests that warm surface water from north of the ice front is drawn southward into the cavity during summer.
Melt rates at the mooring site average 1.8 metres per year. While this rate is much lower than ice shelves impacted by warm CDW, it is ten times higher than the average rate for the Ross Ice Shelf. Strong seasonal variability in the melt rate suggests that this melting hotspot is linked to the summer inflow.
To assess the scale of this effect, we used a high-precision radar to map basal melt rates across a region of about 8,000 square kilometres around the mooring site. Careful observations at around 80 sites allowed us to measure the vertical movement of the ice base and internal layers within the ice shelf over a one-year interval. We could then determine how much of the thinning was caused by basal melting.
Melting was fastest near the ice front where we observed short-term melt rates of up to 15 centimetres per day – several orders of magnitude higher than the ice shelf average rate. Melt rates reduced with distance from the ice front, but rapid melting extended far beyond the mooring site. Melting from the survey region accounted for some 20% of the total from the entire ice shelf.
Why is this region of the shelf melting so much more quickly than elsewhere? As is so often the case in the ocean, it appears that winds play a key role.
During winter and spring, strong katabatic winds sweep across the western Ross Ice Shelf and drive sea ice from the coast. This leads to the formation of an area that is free of sea ice, a polynya, where the ocean is exposed to the atmosphere. During winter, this area of open ocean cools rapidly and sea ice grows. But during spring and summer, the dark ocean surface absorbs heat from the sun and warms, forming a warm surface pool with enough heat to drive the observed melting.
Although the melt rates we observe are far lower than those seen on ice shelves influenced by CDW, the observations suggest that for the Ross Ice Shelf, surface heat is important.
Given this heat is closely linked to surface climate, it is likely that the predicted reductions in sea ice within the coming century will increase basal melt rates. While the rapid melting we observed is currently balanced by ice inflow, glacier models show that this is a structurally critical region where the ice shelf is pinned against Ross Island. Any increase in melt rates could reduce buttressing from Ross Island, increasing the discharge of land-based ice, and ultimately add to sea levels.
While there is still much to learn about these processes, and further surprises are certain, one thing is clear. The ocean plays a key role in the dynamics of Antarctica’s ice sheet and to understand the stability of the ice sheet we must look to the ocean.
Craig Stewart, Marine Physicist, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research
A new report has warned that even if global warming is held at 1.5℃, we will still lose a third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region. What does that mean for rivers that flow down these mountains, and the people who depend on them?
The HKH region is home to the tallest mountains on Earth, and also to the source of rivers that sustain close to 2 billion people. These rivers supply agriculture with water and with sediments that fertilise soils in valleys and the floodplain.
Some of these rivers are hugely culturally significant. The Ganges (or Ganga), for instance, which flows for more than 2,525km from the western Himalayas into the Bay of Bengal, is personified in Hinduism as the goddess Gaṅgā.
Before we get to the effect of melting glaciers on Himalayan rivers, we need to understand where they get their water.
For much of Himalayas, rain falls mostly during the monsoon active between June and September. The monsoon brings heavy rain and often causes devastating floods, such as in northern India in 2013, which forced the evacuation of more than 110,000 people.
But the summer monsoon is not the only culprit for devastating floods. Landslides can dam the river, and when this dam bursts it can cause dramatic, unpredictable flooding. Some of those events have been linked to folk stories of floods in many cultures around the world. In the Himalayas, a study tracking the 1,000-year history of large floods showed that heavy rainfall and landslide-dam burst are the main causes.
When they melt, glaciers can also create natural dams, which can then burst and send floods down the valley. In this way, the newly forecast melting poses an acute threat.
The potential problem is worsened still further by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s prediction that the frequency of extreme rainfall events will also increase.
What will happen to Himalayan rivers when the taps are turned to high in this way? To answer this, we need to look into the past.
For tens of thousands of years, rivers have polished rocks and laid down sediments in the lower valleys of the mountain range. These sediments and rocks tell us the story of how the river behaves when the tap opens or closes.
Some experts propose that intense rain tends to trigger landslides, choking the river with sediments which are then dumped in the valleys. Others suggest that the supply of sediments to the river generally doesn’t change much even in extreme rainfall events, and that the main effect of the extra flow is that the river erodes further into its bed.
The most recent work supports the latter theory. It found that 25,000-35,000 years ago, when the monsoon was much weaker than today, sediments were filling up Himalayan valleys. But more recently (3,000-6,000 years ago), rock surfaces were exposed during a period of strong monsoon, illustrating how the river carved into its bed in response to higher rainfall.
So what does the past tell us about the future of Himalayan rivers? More frequent extreme rainfall events mean more floods, of course. But a stronger monsoon also means rivers will cut deeper into their beds, instead of fertilising Himalayan valleys and the Indo-Gangetic plain with sediments.
What about glaciers melting? For as long as there are glaciers, this will increase the amount of meltwater in the rivers each spring (until 2060, according the report, after which there won’t be any meltwater to talk about). So this too will contribute to rivers carving into their beds instead of distributing sediments. It will also increase the risk of flooding from outburst of glacial lake dams.
So what is at stake? The melting glaciers? No. Given thousands or millions of years, it seems likely that they will one day return. But on a more meaningful human timescale, what is really at stake is us – our own survival. Global warming is reducing our resources, and making life more perilous along the way. The rivers of the Himalayas are just one more example.
The link below is to an article reporting on the rapid ice melt in Greenland.
Volcanoes erupt when magma rises through cracks in the Earth’s crust, but the exact processes that lead to the melting of rocks in the Earth’s mantle below are difficult to study.
In our paper, published today in the journal Nature, we show how it is possible to use satellite measurements of movements of the Earth’s surface to observe the melting process deep below New Zealand’s central North Island, one of the world’s most active volcanic regions.
The solid outer layer of the Earth is known as the crust, and this overlies the Earth’s mantle. But these layers are not fixed. They are broken up into tectonic plates that slowly move relative to each other.
It is along the boundaries of the tectonic plates that most of the geological action at the Earth’s surface occurs, such as earthquakes, volcanic activity and mountain building. This makes New Zealand a particularly dynamic place, geologically speaking, because it straddles the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates.
The central region of the North Island is known as the Taupo volcanic zone, or TVZ. It is named after Lake Taupo, the flooded crater of the region’s largest volcano, and it has been active for two million years. Several volcanoes continue to erupt regularly.
The TVZ is the southern tip of a zone of expansion, or rifting, in the Earth’s crust that extends offshore for thousands of kilometres, all the way north in the Pacific Ocean to Tonga. Offshore, this takes place through sea floor spreading in the Havre Trough, creating both new oceanic crust and a narrow sliver of a plate right along the edge of the Australian tectonic plate. Surprisingly, this spreading is going on at the same time as the adjacent Pacific tectonic plate is sliding beneath the Australian plate in a subduction zone, triggering some of the major earthquakes in the region.
Sea floor spreading results in melting of the Earth’s mantle, but it is very difficult to observe this process directly in the deep ocean. However, sea floor spreading in the Havre Trough transitions abruptly onshore into the volcanic activity in the TVZ. This provides an opportunity to observe the melting in the Earth’s mantle on land.
In general, volcanic activity happens whenever there is molten rock at depth, and therefore the volcanism in the North Island indicates vast volumes of molten rock beneath the surface. However, it has been a tricky problem to understand exactly what is causing the melting in the first place, because the underlying rocks are buried by thick layers of volcanic material.
We have tackled this problem using data from Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors, some of which form part of New Zealand’s GeoNet network and some that have been used in measurement campaigns since 1995. The sensors measure horizontal and vertical shifts in the Earth’s surface to millimetre precision, and our research is based on data collected over the past two decades.
The GPS measurements in the Taupo volcanic zone reveal that it is widening east-west at a rate of 6-15 millimetres per year – in other words, the region, overall, is expanding, as we anticipated from our previous geological understanding. But it was surprising to discover that, at least for the past 15 years, a roughly 70-kilometre stretch is undergoing strong horizontal contraction and is also rapidly subsiding, quite the opposite of what one might anticipate.
Also unexpectedly, the contracting zone is surrounded by regions that are expanding, but also uplifting. Trying to make sense of these observations turned out to be the key to our new insight into the process of melting beneath the TVZ.
We found that the pattern of contraction and subsidence, together with expansion and uplift, in the context of the overall rifting of the TVZ, could be explained by a simple model that involves the bending and curving of an elastic upper crust, pulled downwards or pushed upwards by an underlying vertical driving force. The size of the region that is behaving like this, extending for about 100 kilometres in width and 200 kilometres in length, requires this force to originate nearly 20 kilometres underground, in the Earth’s mantle.
When tectonic plates drift apart on the sea floor, the underlying mantle rises up to fill the gap. This upwelling triggers melting, and the reason for this is that hot, but solid, mantle rocks undergo a reduction in pressure as they move upwards and closer to the Earth’s surface. This drop in pressure, rather than a change in temperature, begins the melting of the mantle.
But there is another property of this upwelling mantle flow, because it also creates a suction force that pulls down the overlying crust. This force comes about because as part of the flow, the rocks have to effectively “turn a corner” near the surface from a predominantly vertical flow to a predominantly horizontal one.
It turns out that the strength of this force depends on how stiff or sticky the mantle rocks are, measured in terms of viscosity (it is difficult to drive the flow of highly viscous or sticky fluids, but easy in runny ones).
Experimental studies have shown that the viscosity of rocks deep in the Earth is very sensitive to how much molten material they contain, and we propose that changes in the amount of melt provide a powerful mechanism to change the viscosity of the upwelling mantle. If mantle rocks don’t contain much melt, they will be much stickier, causing the overlying crust to be pulled down rapidly. If the rocks have just melted, then this makes the flow of the rocks runnier, allowing the overlying crust to spring back up again.
We also know that the movements that we observe at the surface with GPS must be relatively short lived, geologically speaking, lasting for no more than a few hundred or few thousand years. Otherwise they would result in profound changes to the landscape and we have no evidence for that.
Using GPS, we can not only measure the strength of the suction force, but we can “see” where, for how long, and by how much the underlying mantle is melting. This melt will eventually rise up through the crust to feed the overlying volcanoes.
This research helps us to understand how volcanic systems work on a variety of time scales, from human to geological. In fact, it may be that the GPS measurements made over just the last two decades have captured a change in the amount of mantle melt at depth, which could herald the onset of increased volcanic activity and associated risk in the future. But we don’t have measurements over a long enough time period yet to make any confident predictions.
The key point here is, nevertheless, that we have entered a new era whereby satellite measurements can be used to probe activity 20 kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface.
Iron is not commonly famous for its role as a micronutrient for tiny organisms dwelling in the cold waters of polar oceans. But iron feeds plankton, which in turn hold carbon dioxide in their bodies. When they die, the creatures sink to the bottom of the sea, safely storing that carbon.
How exactly the iron gets to the Southern Ocean is hotly debated, but we do know that during the last ice age huge amounts of carbon were stored at the bottom of the Southern Ocean. Understanding how carbon comes to be stored in the depth of the oceans could help abate CO2 in the atmosphere, and Antarctica has a powerful role.
Icebergs and atmospheric dust are believed to have been the major sources of this micronutrient in the past. However, in research published in Nature Communications, my colleagues and I examined calcite crusts from Antarctica, and found that volcanoes under its glaciers were vital in delivering iron to the ocean during the last ice age.
Today, glacial meltwaters from Greenland and the Antarctic peninsula supply iron both in solution and as tiny particles (less than 0.0001mm in diameter), which are readily consumed by plankton. Where glaciers meet bedrock, minute organisms can live in pockets of relatively warm water. They are able to extract “food” from the rock, and in doing so release iron, which then can be carried by underwater rivers to the sea.
Volcanic eruptions under the ice can create underwater subglacial lakes, which, at times, discharge downstream large masses of water that travel to the ice margin and beyond, carrying with them iron in particle and in solution.
The role of melting ice in climate change is as yet poorly understood. It’s particularly pertinent as scientists predict the imminent collapse of part of the Larsen C ice shelf.
Researchers are also investigating how to reproduce natural iron fertilisation in the Southern Ocean and induce algal blooms. By interrogating the volcanic archive, we learn more about the effect that iron fertilisation from meltwater has on global temperatures.
During the Last Glacial Maximum, a period 27,000 to 17,000 years ago when glaciers were at their greatest extent worldwide, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was lowered to 180 parts per million (ppm) relative to pre-industrial levels (280 ppm).
Today we are at 400 ppm and, if current warming trends continue, a point of no return will be reached. The global temperature system will return to the age of the dinosaurs, when there was little difference in temperature from the equator to the poles.
If we are interested in providing a habitable planet for our descendants, we need to mitigate the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere. Blooms of plankton in the Southern Ocean boosted by iron fertilisation were one important ingredient in lowering CO2 in the Last Glacial Maximum, and they could help us today.
The Last Glacial Maximum had winds that spread dust from deserts and icebergs carrying small particles into the Southern Ocean, providing the necessary iron for algal blooms. These extreme conditions don’t exist today.
Neither dust nor icebergs alone, however, explain bursts of productivity recorded in ocean sediments in the Last Glacial Maximum. There was another ingredient, only discovered in rare archives of subglacial processes that could be precisely dated to the Last Glacial Maximum.
Loss of ice in Antartica’s Dry Valleys uncovered rusty-red crusts of calcite plastered on glacially polished rocks. The calcites have tiny layers that can be precisely dated by radiometric techniques.
Each layer preserves in its chemistry and DNA a record of processes that contributed to delivering iron to the Southern Ocean. For example, fluorine-rich spherules indicate that underwater vents created by volcanic activity injected a rich mixture of minerals into the subglacial environment. This was confirmed by DNA data, revealing a thriving community of thermophiles – microorganisms that live in very hot water only.
Then, it became plausible to hypothesise that volcanic eruptions occurred subglacially and formed a subglacial lake, whose waters ran into an interconnected system of channels, ultimately reaching the ice margin. Meltwater drained iron from pockets created where ice met bedrock, which then reached the ocean – thus inducing algal blooms.
We dated this drainage activity to a period when dust flux does not match ocean productivity. Thus, our study indicates that volcanoes in Antarctica had a role in delivering iron to the Southern Ocean, and potentially contributed to lowering CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
Our research helps explain how volcanoes act on climate change. But it also uncovers more about iron fertilisation as a possible way to mitigate global warming.
Antarctica is already feeling the heat of climate change, with rapid melting and retreat of glaciers over recent decades.
A recent article on The Conversation raised the concept of “climate tipping points”: thresholds in the climate system that, once breached, lead to substantial and irreversible change.
Such a climate tipping point may occur as a result of the increasingly rapid decline of the Antarctic ice sheets, leading to a rapid rise in sea levels. But what is this threshold? And when will we reach it?
The Antarctic ice sheet is a large mass of ice, up to 4 km thick in some places, and is grounded on bedrock. Ice generally flows from the interior of the continent towards the margins, speeding up as it goes.
Where the ice sheet meets the ocean, large sections of connected ice – ice shelves – begin to float. These eventually melt from the base or calve off as icebergs. The whole sheet is replenished by accumulating snowfall.
Floating ice shelves act like a cork in a wine bottle, slowing down the ice sheet as it flows towards the oceans. If ice shelves are removed from the system, the ice sheet will rapidly accelerate towards the ocean, bringing about further ice mass loss.
A tipping point occurs if too much of the ice shelf is lost. In some glaciers, this may spark irreversible retreat.
One way to identify a tipping point involves figuring out how much shelf ice Antarctica can lose, and from where, without changing the overall ice flow substantially.
A recent study found that 13.4% of Antarctic shelf ice – distributed regionally across the continent – does not play an active role in ice flow. But if this “safety band” were removed, it would result in significant acceleration of the ice sheet.
Antarctic ice shelves have been thinning at an overall rate of about 300 cubic km per year between 2003 and 2012 and are projected to thin even further over the 21st century. This thinning will move Antarctic ice shelves towards a tipping point, where irreversible collapse of the ice shelf and increase in sea levels may follow.
Some areas of West Antarctica may be already close to the tipping point. For example, ice shelves along the coast of the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas are the most rapidly thinning and have the smallest “safety bands” of all Antarctic ice shelves.
To predict when the “safety band” of ice might be lost, we need to project changes into the future. This requires better understanding of processes that remove ice from the ice sheet, such as melting at the base of ice shelves and iceberg calving.
Melting beneath ice shelves is the main source of Antarctic ice loss. It is driven by contact between warmer sea waters and the underside of ice shelves.
To figure out how much ice will be lost in the future requires knowledge of how quickly the oceans are warming, where these warmer waters will flow, and the role of the atmosphere in modulating these interactions. That’s a complex task that requires computer modelling.
Predicting how quickly ice shelves break up and form icebergs is less well understood and is currently one of the biggest uncertainties in future Antarctic mass loss. Much of the ice lost when icebergs calve occurs in the sporadic release of extremely large icebergs, which can be tens or even hundreds of kilometres across.
It is difficult to predict precisely when and how often large icebergs will break off. Models that can reproduce this behaviour are still being developed.
Scientists are actively researching these areas by developing models of ice sheets and oceans, as well as studying the processes that drive mass loss from Antarctica. These investigations need to combine long-term observations with models: model simulations can then be evaluated and improved, making the science stronger.
The link between ice sheets, oceans, sea ice and atmosphere is one of the least understood, but most important factors in Antarctica’s tipping point. Understanding it better will help us project how much sea levels will rise, and ultimately how we can adapt.
Felicity Graham, Ice Sheet Modeller, Antarctic Gateway Partnership, University of Tasmania; David Gwyther, Antarctic Coastal Ocean Modeller, University of Tasmania; Lenneke Jong, Cryosphere System Modeller, Antarctic Gateway Partnership & Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, University of Tasmania, and Sue Cook, Ice Shelf Glaciologist, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, University of Tasmania