Ice-sheet mass balance and climate change

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Since the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, new observations of ice-sheet mass balance and improved computer simulations of ice-sheet response to continuing climate change have been published. Whereas Greenland is losing ice mass at an increasing pace, current Antarctic ice loss is likely to be less than some recently published estimates. It remains unclear whether East Antarctica has been gaining or losing ice mass over the past 20 years, and uncertainties in ice-mass change for West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula remain large. We discuss the past six years of progress and examine the key problems that remain.

At a glance


  1. Summary of estimates of rates of ice mass change for Antarctica and Greenland.
    Figure 1: Summary of estimates of rates of ice mass change for Antarctica and Greenland.

    In the studies published before 2012 (ref. 2, a) and in 2012 (b), each estimate of a temporally averaged rate of mass change is represented by a box whose width indicates the time period studied, and whose height indicates the error estimate. Single-epoch (snapshot) estimates of mass balance are represented by vertical error bars when error estimates are available, and are otherwise represented by asterisks. Line colour indicates mass assessment technique (see key); line type indicates data source. 2012 studies in b comprise IMBIE combined estimates2 (solid lines), and estimates by Sasgen and others16, 20 and King and others11 (dashed lines), Zwally and others19 (dot-dashed lines), Harig and Simons89 and Ewert and others90 (dotted lines).

  2. Comparison of projected global, Antarctic and Greenland surface air temperature and snowfall anomalies to 2100.
    Figure 2: Comparison of projected global, Antarctic and Greenland surface air temperature and snowfall anomalies to 2100.

    a, Anomaly of global mean 2m air temperature (T2m) simulated by 30 GCMs from the CMIP5 data base. Values are with respect to 1970–99 for the RCP 4.5 (blue) and RCP 8.5 (red) scenarios. We refer to ref. 91 for more details about the Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP) scenarios. The evolving ensemble means are plotted as thick lines, with vertical bars representing ±1s.d. for each decade. A 10-year running mean was used to smooth the curves. b, Same as a but for Antarctica. The land/sea mask from each GCM is used to delimit Antarctica. c, Same as a but for T2m over GIS. The T2m anomaly is taken over the area covering Greenland (60–85°N and 20–70°W) and where surface elevation is higher than 1,000m above sea level. d, Same as b but for precipitation. Anomalies are given in per cent with respect to the mean precipitation for 1970–99. e, Same as c but for precipitation.

  3. Illustration of a marine ice sheet and its interaction with the ocean.
    Figure 3: Illustration of a marine ice sheet and its interaction with the ocean.

    a, Warm modified Circumpolar Deep Water (mCDW) leads to melting at the grounding line, leading to ice-shelf thinning, grounding-line retreat, and initial thinning. b, Marine ice-sheet instability occurs when, in the absence of buttressing, the grounding line retreats on an upward-sloping (in the direction of the flow) bedrock (unstable): ice flux increases with thickness at the grounding line, leading to an increased outflux to the ocean and enhanced thinning that may be compensated by further grounding-line retreat, until a new downward-sloping bed (pinning point) is reached (stable). Thinning of ice sheet and shelf can also be caused by surface melt and increased calving.


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Author information


  1. Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • Edward Hanna
  2. Departamento de Matemática Aplicada a las Tecnologías de la Información, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, 28040 Madrid, Spain

    • Francisco J. Navarro
  3. Laboratoire de Glaciologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium

    • Frank Pattyn
  4. Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, University of Tasmania, Aspendale, Victoria 3195, Australia

    • Catia M. Domingues
  5. Department of Geography, University of Liège, 4000 Liège, Belgium

    • Xavier Fettweis
  6. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109-8099, USA

    • Erik R. Ivins
  7. Faculty of Engineering and the Environment, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK

    • Robert J. Nicholls
  8. Laboratoire de Glaciologie et Géophysique de l’Environnement, UJF – Grenoble 1/CNRS, 38402 Saint-Martin d’Heres, France

    • Catherine Ritz
  9. Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98105, USA

    • Ben Smith
  10. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA

    • Slawek Tulaczyk
  11. Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, UK

    • Pippa L. Whitehouse
  12. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA

    • H. Jay Zwally


E.H. coordinated the study, E.H., F.J.N. and F.P. led the writing, and all authors contributed to the writing and discussion of ideas.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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