Glacier change in Antarctica

Introduction | Temperatures are rising | Ice shelves are collapsing | Glaciers are shrinking | Glaciers are thinning | Glaciers are accelerating | Sea level is rising | Impact of climate on glaciers | References | Comments |


Antarctic Peninsula satellite image. An orthographic projection of NASA's Blue Marble data set (1 km resolution global satellite composite). From Wikimedia Creative Commons by Anna Frodesiak.
Figure 1. The Antarctic Peninsula. An orthographic projection of NASA’s Blue Marble data set (1 km resolution). By Anna Frodesiak.

What is happening around the Antarctic Peninsula? This is a region of very rapid warming, and this has resulted in a whole suite of glaciological changes. What are the implications of this change for us? How do glaciers respond to climate change, how are they related and linked, and what is driving these changes? This article summarises glaciers and climate change around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Temperatures are rising

Figure 2. This image shows the instrumental record of global average w:temperatures as compiled by the w:NASA’s w:Goddard Institute for Space Studies. (2006) “Global temperature change”. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 103: 14288-14293. Following the common practice of the w:IPCC, the zero on this figure is the mean temperature from 1961-1990. This figure was originally prepared by Robert A. Rohde from publicly available data and is incorporated into the Global Warming Art project. Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change is strongly affecting Antarctica. Around the Antarctic Peninsula, temperatures are warming at a rate that is approximately six times the global average. Air temperatures increased by ~2.5°C from 1950-20001. Regional rapid warming here began in the 1930s2. The annual mean air temperature -9°C isotherm has moved southwards, resulting in ice-shelf collapse and glacier recession3. A recent ice core from James Ross Island shows that warming in this region began around 600 years ago and then accelerated over the last century. This rate of warming is unusual, but not unprecedented4. Warming over the Antarctic Peninsula is exacerbated by a strengthening of the Antarctic Oscillation, which is a periodic strengthening and weakening of the tropospheric westerlies that surround Antarctica5. Changing pressure patterns result in flow anomalies, with cooling over East Antarctica and warming over the Antarctic Peninsula.

Figure 3. Antarctic temperature trends, 1981-2007. By Robert Simmon, NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But how unusual is this warmth? Ice core records provide a longer-term perspective on climate over the past four glacial cycles or longer6. The ice-core record indicates that carbon dioxide and temperature co-varied over the last 400 thousand years, which suggests a close link between these ‘greenhouse gases’ and temperature. Ice core records show that methane and carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations are higher than at any point in the last 650,000 years7. The IPCC states,

“The total radiative forcing of the Earth’s climate due to increases in the concentrations of the LLGHGs CO2, CH4 and N2O, and very likely the rate of increase in the total forcing due to these gases over the period since 1750, are unprecedented in more than 10,000 years”

Figure 4. Ice core record of Antarctic atmospheric gases and temperature change over the past 650,000 years. From the IPCC.

Ice shelves are collapsing

Larsen Ice Shelf in 2004
Larsen Ice Shelf in 2004

What effect is this having on the glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula? Ice shelves have disintegrated very rapidly over the last few decades8-13, which has destabilised on-shore glaciers, which rapidly thinned and receded following removal of a buttressing ice shelf11,14-21 (quick check – do you understand the difference between ice shelves, sea ice, ice bergs and marine-terminating glaciers?). Higher air temperatures around the Antarctic Peninsula contribute to ice shelf collapse by increasing the amount of meltwater ponding on the surface8,9,22. When combined with ice shelves that are thinning due to melting from below following the incursion of warm ocean currents onto the continental shelf10,23-25, you have a recipe for rapid ice shelf disintegration. With one particularly warm summer, a thinned ice shelf that is close to its threshold is liable to break up very quickly as meltwater ponding on its surface propagates downwards and initiates iceberg calving by hydrofracture. Some of these ice shelves have collapsed for the first time26.

Larsen Ice Shelf

Landsat images showing the collapse of the Larsen Ice Shelf. Note the blue mottled appearance in 2002, resulting from the exposure of deep blue ice.
Landsat images showing the collapse of the Larsen Ice Shelf. Note the blue mottled appearance in 2002, resulting from the exposure of deep blue ice.

The Larsen Ice Shelf collapsed dramatically and very rapidly in 2002, and glaciers that previously fed into the Larsen Ice Shelf have since accelerated, thinned and receded. The ice shelf disintegrated very rapidly, with the main event happening over just one warm summer. The Larsen B Ice Shelf, shown in Figure 5, has been stable throughout the Holocene and this is the first time it has collapsed in the last 10,000 years.

Pine Island Glacier

Antarctic ice shelf thickness changes. Note the rapid thinning of Pine Island Glacier ice shelf in West Antarctica. From Pritchard et al., 2012, Nature. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature (Pritchard et al. 2012), copyright (2012).
Figure 6. Antarctic ice shelf thickness changes. Note the rapid thinning of Pine Island Glacier ice shelf in West Antarctica. From Pritchard et al., 2012, Nature. Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature
(Pritchard et al. 2012), copyright (2012).

Ice shelves are warmed from below, and the ice shelves around Pine Island Glacier are thinning and receding. The thinning of these ice shelves may limit their ability to buttress the flow of ice from the interior of the ice sheet. Pritchard et al. (2012) say in their paper in Nature (Figure 6) that melting from the base of ice shelves is the primary driver of Antarctic Ice Sheet ice loss, by reducing the buttressing capability of the ice shelves. The rapid thinning of the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf is caused by warm oceanic water at depth that reaches the underside of ice shelves by travelling along troughs on the continental shelf.

Glaciers are shrinking

Glacier on the Antarctic Peninsula. From Wikimedia Creative Commons.

There is increasing evidence that glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula are shrinking and receding. Alison Cook found that 87% of the glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula are receding27,28. Other workers have found evidence of glacier recession and a measureable sea-level contribution29. There is evidence of widespread glacier recession around the northern Antarctic Peninsula21,30. Land-terminating glaciers in this region are shrinking particularly rapidly31, which is significant, as their mass balance is more directly controlled by temperature and precipitation, compared with marine-terminating glaciers, which respond non-linearly to climate forcing.

Glaciers are thinning

A paper published recently in Geophysical Research Letters32 showed that glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula are thinning. 12 glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula showed near-frontal surface lowering since the 1960s, with higher rates of thinning for glaciers on the north-western Antarctic Peninsula. Surface lowering ceases at about 400m in altitude across all the glaciers, which may be due to increased high-altitude accumulation32. These marine-terminating glaciers are affected by both oceanic and atmospheric warming. The thinning of these glaciers is bringing them nearer to floatation. Kunz et al (2012) conclude that the majority of the glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula are likely have been thinning for decades, but that the pattern of surface change is not simple. Lowering is not caused by reduced mass input, as it is not observed at higher elevations (in fact, the amount of lowering has probably been reduced by this higher precipitation).

Glaciers are accelerating

Glaciers are accelerating across the Antarctic Peninsula33. This may be due to the thinning observed at the glacier snouts32,33, and combined with the thinning and recession observed across the Antarctic Peninsula, indicates that there is a climatically-driven rise in sea level from this region. Thinning glaciers are easier to float. Once warm ocean water can access the underside of a glacier, melting from below exacerbates thinning from above, resulting in increased and rapid glacier thinning34. Thinning glaciers accelerate as part of their dynamic response, as changes near the grounding line can impact glacier velocity some distance inland35. Pritchard and Vaughan (2007) argue that thinning as a result of a negative mass balance will reduce the effective stress of a glacier’s bed near the margin, reducing basal resistance and increasing sliding. This leads to further thinning, floatation, rapid calving and increased glacier recession33. The retreat rate will be controlled to a large extent by fjord depth and geometry, and over deepened basins resulting in particularly rapid glacier recession.

Sea level is rising

Recent sea level rise. Credit: Bruce C. Douglas (1997). “Global Sea Rise: A Redetermination”. Surveys in Geophysics 18: 279–292. DOI:10.1023/A:1006544227856. Image from Global Warming art project. Wikimedia Commons

Global sea levels are currently rising at a rate of about 3 mm per year7. The contribution from the Antarctic Peninsula is −41.5 Gt yr−1 36, although a recent study refines this to -34 Gt yr-1 37. King et al. calculate that the Antarctic Ice Sheet as a whole currently contributes about 0.19 mm±0.05 mm per year to global sea level rise, which is largely from the Antarctic Peninsula, the Amundsen Sea sector (including Pine Island Glacier), and which is partly balanced by increased ice accumulation in East Antarctica.

Most modern sea level rise, and sea level rise predicted over the next 100 years, comes from ocean expansion and the melting of small glaciers and ice caps. However, the amount that the sea level will rise in the future depends not only on temperature, glacier recession and ocean warming and expansion, but also the dynamic behaviour of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Marine Ice Sheet Instability may result in rapid future sea level rise, contributed to by ice-shelf collapse and the dynamic behaviour of ice streams. How much will Antarctica contribute to sea level rise in the future? You can read more about that in this blog post.

Ice streams of Antarctica with Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites glacier highlighted.

Impact of climate on glaciers

The Antarctic Peninsula is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to its small size and northerly latitude2. It receives high snowfall but high melt, with a large number of days above 0°C in the summer months33. It interrupts the Circumpolar Westerlies and is liable to be affected by small changes in these winds. Increased numbers of positive degree days 32 coincide with increased rates of thinning on Antarctic Peninsula marine-terminating glaciers, and increased meltwater ponding and hydrofracture on ice shelves. Glaciers are thinning and receding in response to warmer temperatures, and thinning glaciers are easier to float. We know that basal melting of ice shelves drives ice sheet loss34, and we can observe the impacts of climate change around the Antarctic Peninsula today.

Further reading

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

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

3. Morris, E.M. & Vaughan, A.P.M. Spatial and temporal variation of surface temperature on the Antarctic Peninsula and the limit of viability of ice shelves. in Antarctic Peninsula climate variability: historical and palaeoenvironmental perspectives, Vol. Volume 79 (eds. Domack, E.W., Leventer, A., Burnett, A., Bindschadler, R., Convey, P. & Kirby, M.) 61-68 (American Geophysical Union, Antarctic Research Series, Volume 79, Washington, D.C., 2003).

4. Mulvaney, R., Abram, N.J., Hindmarsh, R.C.A., Arrowsmith, C., Fleet, L., Triest, J., Sime, L.C., Alemany, O. & Foord, S. Recent Antarctic Peninsula warming relative to Holocene climate and ice-shelf history. Nature advance online publication(2012).

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

6. Augustin, L., Barbante, C., Barnes, P.R.F., Barnola, J.M., Bigler, M., Castellano, E., Cattani, O., Chappellaz, J., DahlJensen, D., Delmonte, B., Dreyfus, G., Durand, G., Falourd, S., Fischer, H., Fluckiger, J., Hansson, M.E., Huybrechts, P., Jugie, R., Johnsen, S.J., Jouzel, J., Kaufmann, P., Kipfstuhl, J., Lambert, F., Lipenkov, V.Y., Littot, G.V.C., Longinelli, A., Lorrain, R., Maggi, V., Masson-Delmotte, V., Miller, H., Mulvaney, R., Oerlemans, J., Oerter, H., Orombelli, G., Parrenin, F., Peel, D.A., Petit, J.R., Raynaud, D., Ritz, C., Ruth, U., Schwander, J., Siegenthaler, U., Souchez, R., Stauffer, B., Steffensen, J.P., Stenni, B., Stocker, T.F., Tabacco, I.E., Udisti, R., van de Wal, R.S.W., van den Broeke, M., Weiss, J., Wilhelms, F., Winther, J.G., Wolff, E.W., Zucchelli, M. & Members, E.C. Eight glacial cycles from an Antarctic ice core. Nature 429, 623-628 (2004).

7. Solomon, S., Qin, D., Manning, M., Chen, Z., Marquis, M., Averyt, K.B., Tignor, M. & Miller, H.L. (eds.). Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007).

8. Scambos, T., Fricker, H.A., Liu, C.-C., Bohlander, J., Fastook, J., Sargent, A., Massom, R. & Wu, A.-M. Ice shelf disintegration by plate bending and hydro-fracture: Satellite observations and model results of the 2008 Wilkins ice shelf break-ups. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 280, 51-60 (2009).

9. Glasser, N.F. & Scambos, T.A. A structural glaciological analysis of the 2002 Larsen B ice shelf collapse. Journal of Glaciology 54, 3-16 (2008).

10. Vieli, A., Payne, A.J., Shepherd, A. & Du, Z. Causes of pre-collapse changes of the Larsen B ice shelf: Numerical modelling and assimilation of satellite observations. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 259, 297-306 (2007).

11. Rack, W. & Rott, H. Pattern of retreat and disintegration of the Larsen B ice shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Annals of Glaciology 39, 505-510 (2004).

12. Scambos, T., Hulbe, C. & Fahnestock, M. Climate-induced ice shelf disintegration in the Antarctic Peninsula. in Antarctic Peninsula climate variability: historical and palaeoenvironmental perspectives, Vol. Volume 79 (eds. Domack, E.W., Leventer, A., Burnett, A., Bindschadler, R., Convey, P. & Kirby, M.) 79-92 (American Geophysical Union, Antarctic Research Series, Volume 79, Washington, D.C., 2003).

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

14. Rott, H., Müller, F. & Floricioiu, D. The Imbalance of glaciers after disintegration of Larsen B ice shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. The Cryosphere 5, 125-134 (2011).

15. Glasser, N.F., Scambos, T.A., Bohlander, J.A., Truffer, M., Pettit, E.C. & Davies, B.J. 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, 397-406 (2011).

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

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

18. Rignot, E., Casassa, G., Gogineni, P., Krabill, W., Rivera, A. & Thomas, R. Accelerated ice discharge from the Antarctic Peninsula following the collapse of Larsen B ice shelf. Geophysical Research Letters 31, L18401 (2004).

19. De Angelis, H. & Skvarca, P. Glacier surge after ice shelf collapse. Science 299, 1560-1562 (2003).

20. Rott, H., Rack, W., Skvarca, P. & De Angelis, H. Northern Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctica: further retreat after collapse. Annals of Glaciology 34, 277-282 (2002).

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

22. Glasser, N.F., Kulessa, B., Luckman, A., Jansen, D., King, E.C., Sammonds, P.R., Scambos, T.A. & Jezek, K.C. Surface structure and stability of the Larsen C Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Glaciology 55, 400-410 (2009).

23. Walker, R.T., Dupont, T.K., Holland, D.M., Parizek, B.R. & Alley, R.B. Initial effects of oceanic warming on a coupled ocean-ice shelf-ice stream system. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 287, 483-487 (2009).

24. Smith, J.A., Bentley, M.J., Hodgson, D.A., Roberts, S.J., Leng, M.J., Lloyd, J.M., Barrett, M.S., Bryant, C.L. & Sugden, D.E. Oceanic and atmospheric forcing of early Holocene ice shelf retreat, George VI Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Quaternary Science Reviews 26, 500-516 (2007).

25. Shepherd, A., Wingham, D., Payne, T. & Skvarca, P. Larsen ice shelf has progressively thinned. Science 302, 856-859 (2003).

26. Domack, E., Duran, D., Leventer, A., Ishman, S., Doane, S., McCallum, S., Amblas, D., Ring, J., Gilbert, R. & Prentice, M. Stability of the Larsen B ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula during the Holocene epoch. Nature 436, 681-685 (2005).

27. Ferrigno, J.G., Cook, A.J., Foley, K.M., Williams, R.S., Swithinbank, C., Fox, A.J., Thomson, J.W. & Sievers, J. Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Trinity Peninsula Area and South Shetland Islands, Antarctica: 1843-2001, 32 (USGS, Denver, 2006).

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

29. Hock, R., de Woul, M., Radic, V. & Dyurgerov, M. Mountain glaciers and ice caps around Antarctica make a large sea-level rise contribution. Geophysical Research Letters 36, L07501 (2009).

30. Rau, F., Mauz, F., de Angelis, H., Jana, R., Neto, J.A., Skvarca, P., Vogt, S., Saurer, H. & Gossmann, H. Variations of glacier frontal positions on the northern Antarctic Peninsula. Annals of Glaciology 39, 525-530 (2004).

31. Carrivick, J.L., Davies, B.J., Glasser, N.F. & Nývlt, D. Late Holocene changes in character and behaviour of land-terminating glaciers on James Ross Island, Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology 58(2012).

32. Kunz, M., King, M.A., Mills, J.P., Miller, P.E., Fox, A.J., Vaughan, D.G. & Marsh, S.H. Multi-decadal glacier surface lowering in the Antarctic Peninsula. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L19502 (2012).

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

34. Pritchard, H.D., Ligtenberg, S.R.M., Fricker, H.A., Vaughan, D.G., van den Broeke, M.R. & Padman, L. Antarctic ice-sheet loss driven by basal melting of ice shelves. Nature 484, 502-505 (2012).

35. Payne, A.J., Vieli, A., Shepherd, A.P., Wingham, D.J. & Rignot, E. Recent dramatic thinning of largest West Antarctic ice stream triggered by oceans. Geophysical Research Letters 31, L23401 (2004).

36. Ivins, E.R., Watkins, M.M., Yuan, D.-N., Dietrich, R., Casassa, G. & Rülke, A. On-land ice loss and glacial isostatic adjustment at the Drake Passage: 2003-2009. J. Geophys. Res. 116, B02403 (2011).

37. King, M.A., Bingham, R.J., Moore, P., Whitehouse, P.L., Bentley, M.J. & Milne, G.A. Lower satellite-gravimetry estimates of Antarctic sea-level contribution. Nature advance online publication(2012).

17 thoughts on “Glacier change in Antarctica”

  1. Jason Wayne

    91 Volcanos found in West Antarctica in 2017. How many more don’t we know about yet? Changes everything!

  2. I wish this web sight could have helped explain to my how glaciers help us understand past climate.

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