Large parts of the Antarctic ice sheet lying on bedrock below sea level may be vulnerable to marine-ice-sheet instability (MISI)1, a self-sustaining retreat of the grounding line triggered by oceanic or atmospheric changes. There is growing evidence2,3,4 that MISI may be underway throughout the Amundsen Sea embayment (ASE), which contains ice equivalent to more than a metre of global sea-level rise. If triggered in other regions5,6,7,8, the centennial to millennial contribution could be several metres. Physically plausible projections are challenging9: numerical models with sufficient spatial resolution to simulate grounding-line processes have been too computationally expensive2,3,10 to generate large ensembles for uncertainty assessment, and lower-resolution model projections11 rely on parameterizations that are only loosely constrained by present day changes. Here we project that the Antarctic ice sheet will contribute up to 30 cm sea-level equivalent by 2100 and 72 cm by 2200 (95% quantiles) where the ASE dominates. Our process-based, statistical approach gives skewed and complex probability distributions (single mode, 10 cm, at 2100; two modes, 49 cm and 6 cm, at 2200). The dependence of sliding on basal friction is a key unknown: nonlinear relationships favour higher contributions. Results are conditional on assessments of MISI risk on the basis of projected triggers under the climate scenario A1B (ref. 9), although sensitivity to these is limited by theoretical and topographical constraints on the rate and extent of ice loss. We find that contributions are restricted by a combination of these constraints, calibration with success in simulating observed ASE losses, and low assessed risk in some basins. Our assessment suggests that upper-bound estimates from low-resolution models and physical arguments9 (up to a metre by 2100 and around one and a half by 2200) are implausible under current understanding of physical mechanisms and potential triggers.
This work was supported by the ice2sea project funded by the European Commission’s 7th Framework Programme through grant number 226375 (ice2sea contribution number ice2sea119), the UK National Centre for Earth Observation, NERC iGlass project, NERC and UK Met Office Joint Weather and Climate Research Programme, and the French National Research Agency (ANR) under the SUMER (Blanc SIMI 6) 2012 project ANR-12-BS06-0018. Most of the computations were performed using the CIMENT infrastructure (https://ciment.ujf-grenoble.fr), which is supported by the Rhône-Alpes region (grant CPER07 13 CIRA; http://www.ci-ra.org). We thank A. Shepherd and M. McMillan for observational data, H. Hellmer and R. Timmerman for model projection data, D. Vaughan and H. Hellmer for discussions about retreat onset, and J. C. Rougier for discussions about experimental design and calibration.
Extended data figures
Summary of the projections in ten-year time steps. The black contour shows the projected median grounding line position. The map shows the mean change in surface elevation, with -100 m contour shown in green. Dashed purple lines show the borders of Pine Island Glacier (PIG) and Thwaites Glacier, which together comprise the Amundsen Sea Embayment.