Accelerated Antarctic ice loss from satellite gravity measurements


Accurate quantification of Antarctic ice-sheet mass balance and its contribution to global sea-level rise remains challenging, because in situ measurements over both space and time are sparse. Satellite remote-sensing data of ice elevations and ice motion show significant ice loss in the range of −31 to −196 Gt yr−1 in West Antarctica in recent years1,2,3,4, whereas East Antarctica seems to remain in balance or slightly gain mass1,2,4, with estimated rates of mass change in the range of −4 to 22 Gt yr−1. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment5 (GRACE) offers the opportunity of quantifying polar ice-sheet mass balance from a different perspective6,7. Here we use an extended record of GRACE data spanning the period April 2002 to January 2009 to quantify the rates of Antarctic ice loss. In agreement with an independent earlier assessment4, we estimate a total loss of 190±77 Gt yr−1, with 132±26 Gt yr−1 coming from West Antarctica. However, in contrast with previous GRACE estimates, our data suggest that East Antarctica is losing mass, mostly in coastal regions, at a rate of −57±52 Gt yr−1, apparently caused by increased ice loss since the year 2006.

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Figure 1: Antarctic rate map from GRACE.
Figure 2: Forward-modelling scheme.
Figure 3: GRACE mass time series at four selected locations.
Figure 4: Antarctic rate map from forward modelling.


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This research was supported by NASA GRACE Science Program (NNX08AJ84G), NASA PECASE award (NNG04G060G) and NSF International Polar Year Program (ANT-0632195).

Author information

J.L.C. planned analyses, acquired and prepared data, implemented forward modelling and wrote the paper. C.R.W., D.B. and B.D.T. analysed the data and results.

Correspondence to J. L. Chen.

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Chen, J., Wilson, C., Blankenship, D. et al. Accelerated Antarctic ice loss from satellite gravity measurements. Nature Geosci 2, 859–862 (2009) doi:10.1038/ngeo694

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