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Twenty-first-century warming of a large Antarctic ice-shelf cavity by a redirected coastal current



The Antarctic ice sheet loses mass at its fringes bordering the Southern Ocean. At this boundary, warm circumpolar water can override the continental slope front, reaching the grounding line1,2 through submarine glacial troughs and causing high rates of melting at the deep ice-shelf bases3,4. The interplay between ocean currents and continental bathymetry is therefore likely to influence future rates of ice-mass loss. Here we show that a redirection of the coastal current into the Filchner Trough and underneath the Filchner–Ronne Ice Shelf during the second half of the twenty-first century would lead to increased movement of warm waters into the deep southern ice-shelf cavity. Water temperatures in the cavity would increase by more than 2 degrees Celsius and boost average basal melting from 0.2 metres, or 82 billion tonnes, per year to almost 4 metres, or 1,600 billion tonnes, per year. Our results, which are based on the output of a coupled ice–ocean model forced by a range of atmospheric outputs from the HadCM35 climate model, suggest that the changes would be caused primarily by an increase in ocean surface stress in the southeastern Weddell Sea due to thinning of the formerly consolidated sea-ice cover. The projected ice loss at the base of the Filchner–Ronne Ice Shelf represents 80 per cent of the present Antarctic surface mass balance6. Thus, the quantification of basal mass loss under changing climate conditions is important for projections regarding the dynamics of Antarctic ice streams and ice shelves, and global sea level rise.

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Figure 1: Map of Weddell Sea bathymetry south of 60° S.
Figure 2: Simulated evolution of near-bottom temperatures in the Weddell Sea.
Figure 3: Modelled time series (1860–2199) for the southeastern Weddell Sea.


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We thank C. Wübber and W. Cohrs for providing stable computer facilities at the Alfred-Wegener-Institute for Polar and Marine Research; the Ice2Sea community for discussions during project meetings; and J. Ridley, M. Martin and A. Levermann for comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by funding to the Ice2Sea programme from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme, grant number 226375. This is Ice2Sea contribution number 41.

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Authors and Affiliations



H.H.H. had the idea to force BRIOS with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios, did 50% of the BRIOS simulations, conducted a significant part of the analysis of model output, wrote the main text of the paper and participated in the figure preparation. F.K. did 50% of the BRIOS simulations, conducted the analysis of the atmospheric forcing and wrote Supplementary Information. R.T. did all FESOM simulations, was involved in the analysis of model output and prepared most of the figures. J.D. provided the glaciological expertise for the interpretation of the model results related to basal mass loss. J.R. extracted the atmospheric forcings for all simulations and was involved in the analysis of model output. All authors participated in the discussion on model results and in drafting the paper.

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Correspondence to Hartmut H. Hellmer.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Hellmer, H., Kauker, F., Timmermann, R. et al. Twenty-first-century warming of a large Antarctic ice-shelf cavity by a redirected coastal current. Nature 485, 225–228 (2012).

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