Divergent trajectories of Antarctic surface melt under two twenty-first-century climate scenarios


Ice shelves modulate Antarctic contributions to sea-level rise1 and thereby represent a critical, climate-sensitive interface between the Antarctic ice sheet and the global ocean. Following rapid atmospheric warming over the past decades2,3, Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves have progressively retreated4, at times catastrophically5. This decay supports hypotheses of thermal limits of viability for ice shelves via surface melt forcing3,5,6. Here we use a polar-adapted regional climate model7 and satellite observations8 to quantify the nonlinear relationship between surface melting and summer air temperature. Combining observations and multimodel simulations, we examine melt evolution and intensification before observed ice shelf collapse on the Antarctic Peninsula. We then assess the twenty-first-century evolution of surface melt across Antarctica under intermediate and high emissions climate scenarios. Our projections reveal a scenario-independent doubling of Antarctic-wide melt by 2050. Between 2050 and 2100, however, significant divergence in melt occurs between the two climate scenarios. Under the high emissions pathway by 2100, melt on several ice shelves approaches or surpasses intensities that have historically been associated with ice shelf collapse, at least on the northeast Antarctic Peninsula.

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Figure 1: Melt–temperature nonlinearity and recent melting conditions.
Figure 2: Historical melt evolution before ice shelf collapse.
Figure 3: Twenty-first-century evolution of Antarctic surface melt.
Figure 4: Melt exceeding specific thresholds across time and space.


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L.D.T. was supported by NASA Headquarters under the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship Program (grant NNX12AO01H) and the Doherty Postdoctoral Scholarship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Funding for this research was additionally provided by the NASA Cryospheric Sciences Program (grant NNX10AP09G to S.B.D. and K.E.F.). M.R.v.d.B. and P.K.M. acknowledge support from the Netherlands Earth System Science Centre (NESSC) and the Polar Program of the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research. The KNMI-RACMO2 simulations were supported by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Program’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups (listed in Supplementary Table 3 of this paper) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

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L.D.T., K.E.F. and S.B.D. conceived the study. P.K.M., E.v.M. and M.R.v.d.B. performed RACMO2 simulations. L.D.T. led the data analysis and wrote the paper with contributions from K.E.F., S.B.D. and K.B.K. All authors contributed to interpretation of results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Luke D. Trusel.

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Trusel, L., Frey, K., Das, S. et al. Divergent trajectories of Antarctic surface melt under two twenty-first-century climate scenarios. Nature Geosci 8, 927–932 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2563

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