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Recent mass balance of polar ice sheets inferred from patterns of global sea-level change


Global sea level is an indicator of climate change1,2,3, as it is sensitive to both thermal expansion of the oceans and a reduction of land-based glaciers. Global sea-level rise has been estimated by correcting observations from tide gauges for glacial isostatic adjustment—the continuing sea-level response due to melting of Late Pleistocene ice—and by computing the global mean of these residual trends4,5,6,7,8,9. In such analyses, spatial patterns of sea-level rise are assumed to be signals that will average out over geographically distributed tide-gauge data. But a long history of modelling studies10,11,12 has demonstrated that non-uniform—that is, non-eustatic—sea-level redistributions can be produced by variations in the volume of the polar ice sheets. Here we present numerical predictions of gravitationally consistent patterns of sea-level change following variations in either the Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets or the melting of a suite of small mountain glaciers. These predictions are characterized by geometrically distinct patterns that reconcile spatial variations in previously published sea-level records. Under the—albeit coarse—assumption of a globally uniform thermal expansion of the oceans, our approach suggests melting of the Greenland ice complex over the last century equivalent to 0.6 mm yr-1 of sea-level rise.

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Figure 1: Predicted geometries of sea-level change due to continuing ice mass variations.
Figure 2: Predicted sea-level trends due to continuing ice mass variations at a subset of tide gauge sites.
Figure 3: A new analysis of tide gauge records.


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We thank J. Wahr, P. L. Woodworth and T. F. Baker for constructive reviews. We also thank H.-P. Plag for advice on the original manuscript and for sending us a preprint of his article with H.-U. Jüttner. M. Dyurgerov clarified recent models of mountain glacier mass balance. We acknowledge funding from the Ontario Government Premier's Research Excellence Award Program, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, NSERC, NASA, NSF, the Smithsonian Institution, NERC and the Royal Society of Great Britain.

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Correspondence to Jerry X. Mitrovica.

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Mitrovica, J., Tamisiea, M., Davis, J. et al. Recent mass balance of polar ice sheets inferred from patterns of global sea-level change. Nature 409, 1026–1029 (2001).

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