Antarctic Peninsula glacier change

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This page is largely from Davies et al. 2012 (open access) and Glasser et al. 2011. Download the PDF for Davies et al. 2012.

Antarctic Peninsula environmental change

Antarctic temperature trends, 1981-2007. By Robert Simmon, NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Numerous recent papers have documented increasing atmospheric[1-3] and oceanic temperatures[4, 5] across the Antarctic Peninsula and Southern Ocean. Atmospheric air temperatures rose by 2.5°C in the northern Antarctic Peninsula from 1950 to 2000[1]. This is far greater than the global average of 0.6°C per century. This warming may have been ongoing since the 1930s[6]. This environmental change has been linked to an intensification of circumpolar westerlies[7] and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current[8, 9]. A strengthening of the circumpolar vortex results in asynchronous change, with cooling over East Antarctica and warming over West Antarctica[10]. Decreased sea ice in the Bellingshausen Sea enhances warming over the western Peninsula and Weddell Sea. At the same time, there has been less snow falling over the south-western Antarctic Peninsula[10, 11].

Antarctic Peninsula glacier change

This climate change has led to a rapid glaciological response, with 87% of glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula now receding[12], and many glaciers thinning and accelerating[13]. The most dramatic response has been the collapse of several ice shelves, with 28,000 km2 being lost since 1960[14]. This has resulted in glacier acceleration, thinning and recession[15, 16]. This is covered in more detail under Ice Shelves. Larsen-A and the Prince Gustav Ice Shelf on northern Trinity Peninsula were the first ice shelves to collapse in 1995[17], with a combined area of 2030 km2[18].

James Ross Island

Glaciers and the extent of the former Prince Gustav Ice Shelf, showing glacier extent in 2001 and 2009. From: Davies et al., 2011 (The Cryosphere).

New mapping of the glaciers of James Ross Island and Trinity Peninsula between 1988 and 2009 has shown a complex glacier response to environmental change. In 2009, this area had 194 glaciers covering 8140 km2. Trinity Peninsula was drained by outlet and valley glaciers[19].

The collapse of Prince Gustav Ice Shelf had a significant impact on its tributary glaciers. Following collapse, tributary glaciers thinned, accelerated and receded. Between 2001 and 2009, Röhss Glacier, a tributary from James Ross Island, thinned and centre flow line speeds increased (from 0.1 m per day in 2005-2006 to 0.9 m per day 2008-2009)[18].

The role of glacial structures

Glaciological structures may be an important control in ice-shelf collapse. The structural discontinuities indicate that Prince Gustav Ice Shelf was not a cohesive structure, with weaknesses in the suture zones. Structural discontinuities and rift zones visible in a 1998 Landsat image suggest that disintegration began at least 7 years prior to collapse[18]. During this period, rates of sediment accumulation on the sea floor beneath the ice shelf increased between 1985 and 1993, as a result of debris release following pond and lake drainage[20].

Trinity Peninsula

Landsat 4 TM image from 1988 showing Prince Gustav Ice Shelf. Ice shelf glaciological structures have been mapped onto the image.

Across the wider region, glacier response to climate change and ice-shelf collapse was varied[19]. Across Trinity Peninsula, on the eastern coast, glaciers shrank at -0.35% per annum from 1988-2001. West-coast glaciers shrank at -0.2% per annum. Ice-shelf tributary glaciers shrank at -2.69% per annum. From 2001-2009, east-coast tidewater glaciers shrank at -0.21% per annum, west-coast glaciers at -0.03% per annum, and former ice-shelf tributary glaciers at -0.96% per annum[19]. From 1988-2001, 90% of the glaciers in the region shrank, and 79% shrank from 2001-2009, although rates of recession varied strongly spatially[19].

Research findings

This research shows that ice-shelf tributary glaciers shrank fastest overall, and particularly rapidly from 1988-2001. However, among the remaining tidewater glaciers, rates of shrinkage are highly variable. Variable rates of shrinkage are probably controlled by calving processes and non-linear responses to climate change[19]. However, the large differences between the east and west Trinity Peninsula are likely to be a result of strong atmospheric temperature and precipitation gradients; the more stable western Trinity Peninsula is warmer, but receives far more snow[3, 11, 21].

Annual rates of shrinkage for different time periods. Glaciers in red shrank fastest. Glaciers in purple advanced. Note slow rates of shrinkage on the western Peninsula. In Figure D, glaciers in yellow shrank fastest between 1988-2001, and glaciers in red shrank fastest after 2001. From: Davies et al., 2011 (The Cryosphere).

For glaciers feeding the former ice shelf, rates of shrinkage were highest immediately following ice-shelf collapse[19]. This is because ice-shelf removal destabilises tributary glaciers, because ice shelves reduce longitudinal stress and limit glacier motion upstream of the ice shelf[13, 22]. By 2001, these glaciers had begun to stabilise and find a new dynamic equilibrium, and rates of recession began to reduce once they were within their narrow fjords. Fjord geometry is a major control on tidewater glacier dynamics[23], with shrinkage slowing as a result of enhanced backstress  and pinning against fjord sides[19].


Glacier recession around the northern Antarctic Peninsula therefore had three distinct phases: 1988-1995: stable ice-shelf period[19] (possibly with thinning and some early ice-shelf melting[18]); 1995-2001: the period of ice-shelf disintegration and rapid readjustment of ice-shelf tributary glaciers to new boundary conditions; and 2001-2009: shrinkage of all glaciers in response to increased atmospheric and oceanic temperatures.

Further reading

Go to top or jump to Shrinking Patagonian Glaciers.


Please see the original papers and cite as:

Davies, B.J., Carrivick, J.L., Glasser, N.F., Hambrey, M.J. and Smellie, J.L., 2012. Variable glacier response to atmospheric warming, northern Antarctic Peninsula, 1988–2009. The Cryosphere, 6: 1031-1048. (download PDF)

Glasser, N.F., Scambos, T.A., Bohlander, J.A., Truffer, M., Pettit, E.C. and Davies, B.J., 2011. From ice-shelf tributary to tidewater glacier: continued rapid glacier recession, acceleration and thinning of Röhss Glacier following the 1995 collapse of the Prince Gustav Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Glaciology, 57(203): 397-406.


1.            Turner, J., S.R. Colwell, G.J. Marshall, T.A. Lachlan-Cope, A.M. Carelton, P.D. Jones, V. Lagun, P.A. Reid, and S. Iagovkina, 2005. Antarctic climate change during the last 50 years. International Journal of Climatology, 25: 279-294.

2.            Vaughan, D.G., G.J. Marshall, W.M. Connelly, J.C. King, and R. Mulvaney, 2001. Devil in the detail. Science, 293(5536): 1777-1779.

3.            Vaughan, D.G., G.J. Marshall, W.M. Connelly, C. Parkinson, R. Mulvaney, D.A. Hodgson, J.C. King, C.J. Pudsey, and J. Turner, 2003. Recent rapid regional climate warming on the Antarctic Peninsula. Climatic Change, 60: 243-274.

4.            Gille, S.T., 2008. Decadal-scale temperature trends in the Southern Hemisphere Ocean. Journal of Climatology, 21: 4749-4765.

5.            Meredith, M.P. and J.C. King, 2005. Rapid climate change in the ocean west of the Antarctic Peninsula during the second half of the 20th Century. Geophysical Research Letters, 32: L19604.

6.            Davies, B.J., M.J. Hambrey, J.L. Smellie, J.L. Carrivick, and N.F. Glasser, 2012. Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet evolution during the Cenozoic Era. Quaternary Science Reviews, 31(0): 30-66.

7.            Mayewski, P.A., M.P. Meredith, C.P. Summerhayes, J. Turner, A. Worby, P.J. Barrett, G. Casassa, N.A.N. Bertler, T. Bracegirdle, A.C. Naveira Garabato, D. Bromwich, H. Campell, G.S. Hamilton, W.B. Lyons, K.A. Maasch, S. Aoki, C. Xiao, and T. van Ommen, 2009. State of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean climate system. Reviews of Geophysics, 47(RG1003): 1-38.

8.            Lubin, D., R.A. Wittenmyer, D. Bromwich, and G.J. Marshall, 2008. Antarctic Peninsula mesoscale cyclone variability and climatic impacts influenced by the SAM. Geophysical Research Letters, 35: 1-4.

9.            Gille, S.T., 2002. Warming of the Southern Ocean since the 1950s. Science, 295: 1275-1277.

10.          van den Broeke, M.R. and N.P.M. van Lipzig, 2004. Changes in Antarctic temperature, wind and precipitation in response to the Antarctic Oscillation. Annals of Glaciology, 39: 119-126.

11.          van Lipzig, N.P.M., J.C. King, T.A. Lachlan-Cope, and M.R. van den Broeke, 2004. Precipitation, sublimation and snow drift in the Antarctic Peninsula region from a regional atmospheric model. Journal of Geophysical Research, 109: D24106.

12.          Cook, A.J., A.J. Fox, D.G. Vaughan, and J.G. Ferrigno, 2005. Retreating glacier fronts on the Antarctic Peninsula over the past half-century. Science, 308(5721): 541-544.

13.          Pritchard, H.D. and D.G. Vaughan, 2007. Widespread acceleration of tidewater glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Geophysical Research-Earth Surface, 112(F3): F03S29, 1-10.

14.          Cook, A.J. and D.G. Vaughan, 2010. Overview of areal changes of the ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula over the past 50 years. The Cryosphere, 4(1): 77-98.

15.          Scambos, T.A., J.A. Bohlander, C.A. Shuman, and P. Skvarca, 2004. Glacier acceleration and thinning after ice shelf collapse in the Larsen B embayment, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters, 31: L18402.

16.          De Angelis, H. and P. Skvarca, 2003. Glacier surge after ice shelf collapse. Science, 299: 1560-1562.

17.          Cooper, A.P.R., 1997. Historical observations of Prince Gustav Ice Shelf. Polar Record, 33(187): 285-294.

18.          Glasser, N.F., T.A. Scambos, J.A. Bohlander, M. Truffer, E.C. Pettit, and B.J. Davies, 2011. From ice-shelf tributary to tidewater glacier: continued rapid glacier recession, acceleration and thinning of Röhss Glacier following the 1995 collapse of the Prince Gustav Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Glaciology, 57(203): 397-406.

19.          Davies, B.J., J.L. Carrivick, N.F. Glasser, M.J. Hambrey, and J.L. Smellie, 2012. Variable glacier response to atmospheric warming, northern Antarctic Peninsula, 1988–2009. The Cryosphere, 6: 1031-1048.

20.          Gilbert, R. and E.W. Domack, 2003. Sedimentary record of disintegrating ice shelves in a warming climate, Antarctic Peninsula. Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems, 4.

21.          Aristarain, A.J., 1987. Accumulation and temperature measurements on the James Ross Island ice cap, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology, 33(115): 357-362.

22.          Hulbe, C.L., T.A. Scambos, T. Youngberg, and A.K. Lamb, 2008. Patterns of glacier response to disintegration of the Larsen B ice shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Global and Planetary Change, 63(1): 1-8.

23.          Meier, M.F. and A.S. Post, 1987. Fast tidewater glaciers. Journal of Geophysical Research, 92: 9051-9058.

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5 thoughts on “Antarctic Peninsula glacier change

  1. Pingback: An Antarctic food cache | Mallemaroking

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  3. Please help me understand something. I just stumbled upon this page while doing some personal research and I’m a little confused about the shrinkage rates stated for “across the Trinity Peninsula”. The article states that the glaciers “shrank” at a negative percentage rate. Doesn’t the negative rate mean they actually grew? It’s a double negative, and then the paragraph finishes with “From 1988-2001, 90% of the glaciers in the region shrank, and 79% shrank from 2001-2009…” Does this tally also include the negative % shrinkage of the previously mentioned glaciers? I’m just trying to understand this more fully and hope someone will be able to explain it for the non-scientists like me.

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