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The far reach of ice-shelf thinning in Antarctica


Floating ice shelves, which fringe most of Antarctica’s coastline, regulate ice flow into the Southern Ocean1,2,3. Their thinning4,5,6,7 or disintegration8,9 can cause upstream acceleration of grounded ice and raise global sea levels. So far the effect has not been quantified in a comprehensive and spatially explicit manner. Here, using a finite-element model, we diagnose the immediate, continent-wide flux response to different spatial patterns of ice-shelf mass loss. We show that highly localized ice-shelf thinning can reach across the entire shelf and accelerate ice flow in regions far from the initial perturbation. As an example, this ‘tele-buttressing’ enhances outflow from Bindschadler Ice Stream in response to thinning near Ross Island more than 900 km away. We further find that the integrated flux response across all grounding lines is highly dependent on the location of imposed changes: the strongest response is caused not only near ice streams and ice rises, but also by thinning, for instance, well-within the Filchner–Ronne and Ross Ice Shelves. The most critical regions in all major ice shelves are often located in regions easily accessible to the intrusion of warm ocean waters10,11,12, stressing Antarctica’s vulnerability to changes in its surrounding ocean.

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This research has received funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) grant number LE 1448/8-1, from COMNAP Antarctic Research Fellowship 2016, the German Academic National Foundation, Evangelisches Studienwerk Villigst and from the NERC NE/L013770 Large Grant ‘Ice shelves in a warming world: Filchner Ice Shelf system, Antarctica’.

Author information

R.R., G.H.G., A.L. and R.W. designed the research and contributed to the analysis. R.W. conceived the study. G.H.G. developed the Úa model and created the Antarctica setup. R.R. carried out the analysis. R.R., G.H.G. and R.W. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to R. Winkelmann.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figure 1–8, Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary References.

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Buttressing flux response numbers (θ B) for Antarctic ice shelves.
Fig. 2: Examples of changes in speed resulting from 1 m thinning.
Fig. 3: Tele-buttressing.