Letter | Published:

Retreat of Pine Island Glacier controlled by marine ice-sheet instability

Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 117121 (2014) | Download Citation


Over the past 40 years Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica has thinned at an accelerating rate1,2,3, so that at present it is the largest single contributor to sea-level rise in Antarctica4. In recent years, the grounding line, which separates the grounded ice sheet from the floating ice shelf, has retreated by tens of kilometres5. At present, the grounding line is crossing a retrograde bedrock slope that lies well below sea level, raising the possibility that the glacier is susceptible to the marine ice-sheet instability mechanism6,7,8. Here, using three state-of-the-art ice-flow models9,10,11, we show that Pine Island Glacier’s grounding line is probably engaged in an unstable 40 km retreat. The associated mass loss increases substantially over the course of our simulations from the average value of 20 Gt yr−1 observed for the 1992–2011 period4, up to and above 100 Gt yr−1, equivalent to 3.5–10 mm eustatic sea-level rise over the following 20 years. Mass loss remains elevated from then on, ranging from 60 to 120 Gt yr−1.

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We are grateful to T. Flament for observations of surface elevation change, A. Shepherd and N. Gourmelen for recent location of the grounding line and P. Dutrieux for discussions on sub-ice-shelf melting. Elmer/Ice computations were carried out using HPC resources from GENCI-CINES (grant/2012016066/) and from the Service Commun de Calcul Intensif de l’Observatoire de Grenoble (SCCI). BISICLES calculations were carried out on the University of Bristol’s Blue Crystal Phase 2 supercomputer and the code is jointly developed with D. F. Martin at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, California, USA, with financial support provided by the US Department of Energy and the UK Natural Environment Research Council. This work was supported by financial support from the ice2sea program from the European Union 7th Framework Programme, grant number 226375, ice2sea contribution number 157 and by NERC grant number NE/H02333X/1.

Author information


  1. CNRS, LGGE, Grenoble F-38041, France

    • L. Favier
    • , G. Durand
    • , O. Gagliardini
    •  & F. Gillet-Chaulet
  2. Univ. Grenoble Alpes, LGGE, Grenoble F-38041, France

    • L. Favier
    • , G. Durand
    • , O. Gagliardini
    •  & F. Gillet-Chaulet
  3. School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, BS8 1SS, UK

    • S. L. Cornford
    •  & A. J. Payne
  4. British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

    • G. H. Gudmundsson
  5. CAREERI, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lanzhou 730000, China

    • G. H. Gudmundsson
  6. Institut Universitaire de France, 103 bd St Michel, 75005 Paris, France

    • O. Gagliardini
  7. CSC-IT Center for Science Ltd, PO Box 405, FIN-02101 Espoo, Finland

    • T. Zwinger
  8. Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Rennes Drive, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK

    • A. M. Le Brocq


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L.F. and G.D. designed the experiments. L.F. did the numerical modelling with Elmer/Ice, S.L.C. with BISICLES and G.H.G. with Úa. O.G., F.G-C. and T.Z. contributed to the set-up of Elmer/Ice, A.J.P. contributed to BISICLES. A.M.L.B. provided the high-resolution topographic input data set that has been used by Elmer/Ice and BISICLES. L.F., G.D. and S.L.C. led the writing of the manuscript, which has been improved by all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to G. Durand.

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