Recent Antarctic ice mass loss from radar interferometry and regional climate modelling

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Large uncertainties remain in the current and future contribution to sea level rise from Antarctica. Climate warming may increase snowfall in the continent’s interior1,2,3, but enhance glacier discharge at the coast where warmer air and ocean temperatures erode the buttressing ice shelves4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11. Here, we use satellite interferometric synthetic-aperture radar observations from 1992 to 2006 covering 85% of Antarctica’s coastline to estimate the total mass flux into the ocean. We compare the mass fluxes from large drainage basin units with interior snow accumulation calculated from a regional atmospheric climate model for 1980 to 2004. In East Antarctica, small glacier losses in Wilkes Land and glacier gains at the mouths of the Filchner and Ross ice shelves combine to a near-zero loss of 4±61 Gt yr−1. In West Antarctica, widespread losses along the Bellingshausen and Amundsen seas increased the ice sheet loss by 59% in 10 years to reach 132±60 Gt yr−1 in 2006. In the Peninsula, losses increased by 140% to reach 60±46 Gt yr−1 in 2006. Losses are concentrated along narrow channels occupied by outlet glaciers and are caused by ongoing and past glacier acceleration. Changes in glacier flow therefore have a significant, if not dominant impact on ice sheet mass balance.

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We thank R. Arthern for discussions. This work was carried out at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of California Irvine and the University of Missouri, Columbia, under a contract with NASA’s Cryospheric Science Program. J.L.B. was supported by NERC grant NE/E004032/1. SAR data were provided by the European Space Agency VECTRA project, the Canadian Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, and the Alaska Satellite Facility. ERS-2 radar altimeter data were provided by NASA/GSFC.

Author information


  1. University of California Irvine, Earth System Science, Irvine, California 92697, USA

    • Eric Rignot
  2. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • Eric Rignot
  3. Centro de Estudios Cientificos, Arturo Prat 514, Valdivia, Chile

    • Eric Rignot
  4. University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • Jonathan L. Bamber
  5. Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research (IMAU), Utrecht University, 3584 CC Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Michiel R. van den Broeke
    •  & Willem Jan van de Berg
  6. University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, Missouri 65211, USA

    • Curt Davis
    •  & Yonghong Li
  7. Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), 3732 GK De Bilt, The Netherlands

    • Erik van Meijgaard


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All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. E.R. led the remote sensing analysis, development of the paper and integration of the results, J.L.B. provided a digital elevation model and analysed its accuracy, M.R.B., W.J.B. and E.M. contributed calculations of snow accumulation, firn depth correction and associated errors and C.D. and Y.L. analysed elevation changes from satellite radar altimeter data.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Eric Rignot.

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