Article

Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise

Received:
Accepted:
Published online:

Abstract

Polar temperatures over the last several million years have, at times, been slightly warmer than today, yet global mean sea level has been 6–9 metres higher as recently as the Last Interglacial (130,000 to 115,000 years ago) and possibly higher during the Pliocene epoch (about three million years ago). In both cases the Antarctic ice sheet has been implicated as the primary contributor, hinting at its future vulnerability. Here we use a model coupling ice sheet and climate dynamics—including previously underappreciated processes linking atmospheric warming with hydrofracturing of buttressing ice shelves and structural collapse of marine-terminating ice cliffs—that is calibrated against Pliocene and Last Interglacial sea-level estimates and applied to future greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500, if emissions continue unabated. In this case atmospheric warming will soon become the dominant driver of ice loss, but prolonged ocean warming will delay its recovery for thousands of years.

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Change history

  • Corrected online 05 April 2016

    A couple of missing citations to the Extended Data Tables were corrected in the HTML on 5 April 2016.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Shields at NCAR for providing CCSM4 ocean model data. NCAR is sponsored by the NSF. We also thank R. Kopp for providing LIG sea-level data, and R. Alley, A. Dutton, and M. Raymo for discussions. This research was supported by the NSF under awards OCE 1202632 PLIOMAX project and AGS 1203910/1203792.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geosciences, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003, USA

    • Robert M. DeConto
  2. Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA

    • David Pollard

Authors

  1. Search for Robert M. DeConto in:

  2. Search for David Pollard in:

Contributions

R.M.D. and D.P. conceived the model experiments, developed the models, and wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert M. DeConto.

Extended data

Supplementary information

Videos

  1. 1.

    RCP2.6 ice-sheet thickness (m) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  2. 2.

    RCP4.5 ice-sheet thickness (m) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  3. 3.

    RCP8.5 ice-sheet thickness (m) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  4. 4.

    RCP2.6 oceanic melt rates (m a-1) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  5. 5.

    RCP4.5 oceanic melt rates (m a-1) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  6. 6.

    RCP8.5 oceanic melt rates (m a-1) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  7. 7.

    RCP2.6 surface melt-water production (m a-1) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  8. 8.

    RCP4.5 surface melt-water production (m a-1) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  9. 9.

    RCP8.5 surface melt-water production (m a-1) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.

  10. 10.

    RCP8.5 ice-surface speeds (norm of ice-surface velocities (m a-1)) from 1950 to 2500 CE

    This video shows various aspects of our ice-sheet simulations from 1950 to 2500 CE, following future greenhouse-gas emission scenarios: RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP8.5. Animations show the time-evolution of ice sheet thickness (m), oceanic melt rates (m a-1) driven by NCAR CCSM4 ocean temperatures, and surface melt-water production (m a-1) driven by our atmospheric RCM. Surface ice speeds (m a-1) illustrate the evolution of ice streams during ice-sheet retreat in the RCP8.5 scenario. The simulations in the videos use default model parameters and correspond to the simulations shown in Figure 4.