Collaborative Research: Assessing the Global Climate Response to Melting of the Antarctic Ice Sheet
Role of Antarctic meltwater oceanic discharge in warming scenarios
A great deal of uncertainty remains over how changes in high-latitude freshwater forcing will impact the stability of global ocean circulation, and in particular the strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) in the next 100-300 years, especially in realistic models. Indeed, it is still not understood whether increased Southern Ocean freshwater forcing will act to intensify the AMOC and warm the Northern Hemisphere or weaken it and trigger a cooling. The requirement to accurately assess climate sensitivity to freshwater forcing is heightened by increasing evidence that the marine-based West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is vulnerable to rapid retreat and collapse on multidecadal-to-centennial timescales. Observations collected over the last 30 years indicate that WAIS is losing ice at an accelerated rate and may signal that the ice sheet has already begun a rapid and irreversible collapse. In addition, future simulations of the Antarctic ice sheet by members of our Project Team show the potential for far more rapid Antarctic ice sheet retreat in the future than previously simulated, suggesting that the discharge of enormous fluxes of icebergs and freshwater to the Southern Ocean should be considered a possibility in the near-future. Here, we performed a suite of coupled numerical climate model simulations to more accurately determine the sensitivity of global ocean circulation to freshwater and iceberg discharge from the Antarctic Ice Sheet (AIS) in the future under IPCC RCP scenarios 4.5 and 8.5. In our model, the input of freshwater and ice was provided by a dynamic ice sheet-shelf model that predicts a full collapse of the WAIS in the next ~100 years. Significantly, we find that accounting for Antarctic discharge raises subsurface ocean temperatures by >1°C at the ice sheet grounding line, relative to model simulations that are unable to capture this discharge. In contrast, we find that the increased meltwater causes a dramatic expansion of sea ice and a 2° - 10°C cooling of the surface air and surface ocean temperatures over the Southern Ocean that would have the potential to stabilize/reduce projected future ice sheet melt rates. Our work thus highlights that the future stability of the Antarctic ice sheet will likely be governed by whether any surface cooling can counteract any increased rates of subsurface melt.
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