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Stronger ocean circulation and increased melting under Pine Island Glacier ice shelf

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In 1994, ocean measurements near Antarctica’s Pine Island Glacier showed that the ice shelf buttressing the glacier was melting rapidly1. This melting was attributed to the presence of relatively warm, deep water on the Amundsen Sea continental shelf. Heat, salt and ice budgets along with ocean modelling provided steady-state calving and melting rates2,3. Subsequent satellite observations and modelling have indicated large system imbalances, including ice-shelf thinning and more intense melting, glacier acceleration and drainage basin drawdown4,5,6,7,8,9,10. Here we combine our earlier data with measurements taken in 2009 to show that the temperature and volume of deep water in Pine Island Bay have increased. Ocean transport and tracer calculations near the ice shelf reveal a rise in meltwater production by about 50% since 1994. The faster melting seems to result mainly from stronger sub-ice-shelf circulation, as thinning ice has increased the gap above an underlying submarine bank on which the glacier was formerly grounded11. We conclude that the basal melting has exceeded the increase in ice inflow, leading to the formation and enlargement of an inner cavity under the ice shelf within which sea water nearly 4 °C above freezing can now more readily access the grounding zone.

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Figure 1: Ocean stations in the eastern Amundsen Sea and greater PIB (>74° S).
Figure 2: Vertical temperature and salinity sections.
Figure 3: Temperature and salinity in PIB.
Figure 4: Meltwater fractions and geostrophic current velocities near the PIG ice front.

Change history

  • 29 June 2011

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, Fig. 4b–d were incorrectly described in the caption. This error has now been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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We have been ably assisted by many colleagues aboard ship and at several institutions in the acquisition, analysis and presentation of data used in this study. The NSF, NOAA and NERC have supported this work, currently under grants ANT06-32282, NA080AR4320912, and NE/G001367/1.

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S.S.J. and A.J. proposed the research, analysed the results and wrote the text. C.F.G. and P.D. processed the data. C.F.G., P.D. and A.J. prepared the figures. All authors read and commented on the paper.

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Correspondence to Stanley S. Jacobs or Adrian Jenkins.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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

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