Letter | Published:

Antarctic ice-sheet loss driven by basal melting of ice shelves

Nature volume 484, pages 502505 (26 April 2012) | Download Citation



Accurate prediction of global sea-level rise requires that we understand the cause of recent, widespread and intensifying1,2 glacier acceleration along Antarctic ice-sheet coastal margins3. Atmospheric and oceanic forcing have the potential to reduce the thickness and extent of floating ice shelves, potentially limiting their ability to buttress the flow of grounded tributary glaciers4. Indeed, recent ice-shelf collapse led to retreat and acceleration of several glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula5. But the extent and magnitude of ice-shelf thickness change, the underlying causes of such change, and its link to glacier flow rate are so poorly understood that its future impact on the ice sheets cannot yet be predicted3. Here we use satellite laser altimetry and modelling of the surface firn layer to reveal the circum-Antarctic pattern of ice-shelf thinning through increased basal melt. We deduce that this increased melt is the primary control of Antarctic ice-sheet loss, through a reduction in buttressing of the adjacent ice sheet leading to accelerated glacier flow2. The highest thinning rates occur where warm water at depth can access thick ice shelves via submarine troughs crossing the continental shelf. Wind forcing could explain the dominant patterns of both basal melting and the surface melting and collapse of Antarctic ice shelves, through ocean upwelling in the Amundsen6 and Bellingshausen7 seas, and atmospheric warming on the Antarctic Peninsula8. This implies that climate forcing through changing winds influences Antarctic ice-sheet mass balance, and hence global sea level, on annual to decadal timescales.

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This work was supported by funding from the ice2sea programme from the European Union 7th Framework Programme, grant number 226375. This is ice2sea contribution number 056. We thank NASA’s ICESat Science Project for distribution of the ICESat data (see http://icesat.gsfc.nasa.gov and http://nsidc.org/data/icesat). We also thank T. Urban for providing ICESat bias corrections and R. Arthern for assistance with error assessment. This paper is ESR contribution 146.

Author information


  1. British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

    • H. D. Pritchard
    •  & D. G. Vaughan
  2. Utrecht University, Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, 3508 TA Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • S. R. M. Ligtenberg
    •  & M. R. van den Broeke
  3. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

    • H. A. Fricker
  4. Earth & Space Research, 3350 Southwest Cascade Avenue, Corvallis, Oregon 97333-1536, USA

    • L. Padman


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H.D.P. designed and led the research. H.D.P., H.A.F. and L.P. analysed the altimetry data. S.R.M.L. and M.R.v.d.B. modelled the firn signals. All authors wrote and discussed the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to H. D. Pritchard.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Discussion on ice-shelf retreat or acceleration as a potential cause of ice-shelf thinning, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1-15, legend for Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Table 2 listing the ICESat campaigns and their biases and Supplementary References.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This file contains Supplementary Table 1 which lists all of the ice shelves studied and their locations, their height change rate and its sample size and uncertainty, the modelled firn signal and its uncertainty, the calculated basal melt imbalance, the rate of lowering of adjacent fast and slow-flowing grounded ice (for selected ice shelves), and a comparison (where possible), to previous studies (see Supplementary Information for full legend).

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