Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. Walker, D. P. et al. Oceanic heat transport onto the Amundsen Sea shelf through a submarine glacial trough. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L02602 (2007)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Hellmer, H. H., Jacobs, S. S. & Jenkins, A. in Ocean, Ice, and Atmosphere: Interactions at the Antarctic Continental Margin (eds Jacobs, S. S. & Weiss, R. F. ) 83–99 (Antarctic Res. Ser. 75, American Geophysical Union, 1998)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. Jacobs, S. S., Jenkins, A., Giulivi, C. & Dutrieux, P. Stronger ocean circulation and increased melting under Pine Island Glacier ice shelf. Nature Geosci. 4, 519–523 (2011)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Payne, A. J. et al. Numerical modeling of ocean-ice interactions under Pine Island Bay’s ice shelf. J. Geophys. Res. 112, C10019 (2007)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Gordon, C. et al. The simulation of SST, sea ice extents and ocean heat transports in a version of the Hadley Centre coupled model without flux adjustments. Clim. Dyn. 16, 147–168 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Rignot, E. et al. Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L05503 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Schröder, M. & Fahrbach, E. On the structure and the transport in the eastern Weddell Gyre. Deep-Sea Res. II 46, 501–527 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Schröder, M., Hellmer, H. H. & Absy, J. M. On the near-bottom variability at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Deep-Sea Res. II 49, 4767–4790 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Nicholls, K. W., Boehme, L., Biuw, M. & Fedak, M. A. Wintertime ocean conditions over the southern Weddell Sea continental shelf, Antarctica. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L21605 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Foldvik, A., Gammelsrød, T. & Tørresen, T. in Oceanology of the Antarctic Continental Shelf (ed. Jacobs, S. S. ) 5–20 (Antarctic Res. Ser. 43, American Geophysical Union, 1985)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Makinson, K. & Nicholls, K. W. Modeling tidal currents beneath Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf and the adjacent continental shelf: their effect on mixing and transport. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 13449–13465 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Nicholls, K. W. Predicted reduction in basal melt rates of an Antarctic ice shelf in a warmer climate. Nature 388, 460–462 (1997)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Bamber, J. L., Riva, R. E. M., Vermeersen, B. L. A. & LeBrocq, A. Reassessment of the potential sea-level rise from a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science 324, 901–903 (2009)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Jenkins, A. et al. Observations beneath Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica and implications for its retreat. Nature Geosci. 3, 468–472 (2010)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Bamber, J. L., Vaughan, D. G. & Joughin, I. Widespread complex flow in the interior of the Antarctic ice sheet. Science 287, 1248–1250 (2000)

    CAS  ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Beckmann, A., Hellmer, H. H. & Timmermann, R. A numerical model of the Weddell Sea: large-scale circulation and water mass distribution. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 23375–23391 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Collins, M. et al. Climate model errors, feedbacks and forcings: a comparison of perturbed physics and multi-model ensembles. Clim. Dyn. 36, 1737–1766 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Johns, T. C. et al. Climate change under aggressive mitigation: The ENSEMBLES multi-model experiment. Clim. Dyn. 37, 1975–2004 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Lowe, J. A. et al. New study for climate modelling, analyses, and scenarios. Eos 90, 181–182 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Nakicevovic, N. et al. IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000)

  21. Parkinson, C. L. & Washington, W. M. A large-scale numerical model of sea ice. J. Geophys. Res. 84, 311–337 (1979)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Hibler, W. D., III A dynamic thermodynamic sea ice model. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 9, 815–846 (1979)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Hellmer, H. H. Impact of Antarctic ice shelf basal melting on sea ice and deep ocean properties. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L10307 (2004)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Timmermann, R., Beckmann, A. & Hellmer, H. H. Simulations of ice-ocean dynamics in the Weddell Sea: 1. Model configuration and validation. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 3024 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Assmann, K. M., Hellmer, H. H. & Jacobs, S. S. Amundsen Sea ice production and transport. J. Geophys. Res. 110, C12013 (2005)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Lichey, C. & Hellmer, H. H. Modeling giant-iceberg drift under the influence of sea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. J. Glaciol. 47, 452–460 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Kalnay, E. M. et al. The NCEP/NCAR 40-year reanalysis project. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 77, 437–471 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Timmermann, R. et al. Ocean circulation and sea ice distribution in a finite element global sea ice–ocean model. Ocean Model. 27, 114–129 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Timmermann, R. et al. A consistent dataset of Antarctic ice sheet topography, cavity geometry, and global bathymetry. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 2, 261–273 (2010)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Walker, R. T. & Holland, D. M. A two-dimensional coupled model for ice shelf-ocean interaction. Ocean Model. 17, 123–139 (2007)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Gordon, A. L., Visbeck, M. & Huber, B. Export of Weddell Sea deep and bottom water. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 9005–9017 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hartmut H. Hellmer.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Text and Supplementary Figures 1-5. (PDF 7136 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing