Melting and Calving of Antarctic Ice Shelves
Major portions of the Antarctic Ice Sheet float in the surrounding ocean, at the physical and intellectual boundaries of oceanography and glaciology. These ice shelves lose mass continuously by melting into the sea, and periodically by the calving of icebergs. Those losses are compensated by the outflow of grounded ice, and by surface accumulation and basal freezing. Ice shelf sources and sinks vary on several time scales, but their wastage terms are not yet well known. Reports of substantial ice shelf retreat, regional ocean freshening and increased ice velocity and thinning are of particular concern at a time of warming ocean temperatures in waters that have access to deep glacier grounding lines.
This award supports a study of the attrition of Antarctic ice shelves, using recent ocean geochemical measurements and drawing on numerical modeling and remote sensing resources. In cooperation with associates at Columbia University and the British Antarctic Survey, measurements of chlorofluorocarbon, helium, neon and oxygen isotopes will be used to infer basal melting beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, and a combination of oceanographic and altimeter data will be used to investigate the mass balance of George VI Ice Shelf. Ocean and remote sensing observations will also be used to help refine numerical models of ice cavity circulations. The objectives are to reduce uncertainties between different estimates of basal melting and freezing, evaluate regional variability, and provide an update of an earlier assessment of circumpolar net melting.
A better knowledge of ice shelf attrition is essential to an improved understanding of ice shelf response to climate change. Large ice shelf calving events can alter the ocean circulation and sea ice formation, and can lead to logistics problems such as those recently experienced in the Ross Sea. Broader impacts include the role of ice shelf meltwater in freshening and stabilizing the upper ocean, and in the formation of Antarctic Bottom Water, which can be traced far into the North Atlantic. To the extent that ice shelf attrition influences the flow of grounded ice, this work also has implications for ice sheet stability and sea level rise.
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