West Antarctic Ice Sheet May Have Begun Its Collapse

By December 2, 2009 February 24th, 2013 West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Institute of Theoretical Geophysics, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, Wilberforce Road, Cambridge CB3 0WA, UK

Abstract: Recent observations of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet document rapid changes in the mass balance of its component glaciers. These observations raise the question of whether changing climatic conditions have triggered a dynamical instability in the ice-sheet–ice shelf system. The dynamics of marine ice sheets are sensitive to grounding-line position and variation, characteristics that are poorly captured by most current models. We present a theory for grounding-line dynamics in three spatial dimensions and time. Our theory is based on a balance of forces across the grounding line; it is expressed as a differential equation that is analogous to the canonical Stefan condition. We apply this theory to the question of grounding-line stability under conditions of retrograde bed slope in a suite of calculations with different basal topography. A subset of these have basal topography inspired by the Pine Island glacier, where basal depth varies in both the along-flow and across-flow directions. Our results indicate that unstable retreat of the grounding line over retrograde beds is a robust feature of models that evolve based on force balance at the grounding line. We conclude, based on our simplified model, that unstable grounding-line recession may already be occurring at the Pine Island glacier. (emphasis added)

Katz and Worster, Stability of ice sheet grounding lines, Proceedings of the Royal Society, January 2010.