Response of Pacific-sector Antarctic ice shelves to the El Niño/Southern Oscillation

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Satellite observations over the past two decades have revealed increasing loss of grounded ice in West Antarctica, associated with floating ice shelves that have been thinning. Thinning reduces an ice shelf’s ability to restrain grounded-ice discharge, yet our understanding of the climate processes that drive mass changes is limited. Here, we use ice-shelf height data from four satellite altimeter missions (1994–2017) to show a direct link between ice-shelf height variability in the Antarctic Pacific sector and changes in regional atmospheric circulation driven by the El Niño/Southern Oscillation. This link is strongest from the Dotson to Ross ice shelves and weaker elsewhere. During intense El Niño years, height increase by accumulation exceeds the height decrease by basal melting, but net ice-shelf mass declines as basal ice loss exceeds ice gain by lower-density snow. Our results demonstrate a substantial response of Amundsen Sea ice shelves to global and regional climate variability, with rates of change in height and mass on interannual timescales that can be comparable to the longer-term trend, and with mass changes from surface accumulation offsetting a significant fraction of the changes in basal melting. This implies that ice-shelf height and mass variability will increase as interannual atmospheric variability increases in a warming climate.

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This work was funded by NASA (awards NNX12AN50H 002 (93735A), NNX10AG19G and NNX13AP60G). This is ESR contribution 159. We thank J. Zwally’s Ice Altimetry group at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for distributing their data sets for ERS-1/2 and Envisat satellite radar-altimeter missions (, and the European Space Agency (ESA) for distributing their CryoSat-2 data. We thank S. Ligtenberg, M. van Wessem and M. van den Broeke for providing the surface mass balance and firn densification model-derived products.

Author information


  1. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA

    • F. S. Paolo
    • , H. A. Fricker
    • , S. Adusumilli
    •  & M. R. Siegfried
  2. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA

    • F. S. Paolo
  3. Earth & Space Research, Corvallis, OR, USA

    • L. Padman
  4. Earth & Space Research, Seattle, WA, USA

    • S. Howard
  5. Department of Geophysics, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, USA

    • M. R. Siegfried


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F.S.P. and L.P. devised the study. F.S.P. processed the data and performed the analyses. F.S.P., L.P. and H.A.F. wrote the manuscript. S.A. and M.R.S. provided the CryoSat-2 time series. S.H. processed the ERA-Interim and sea-ice products. All authors discussed the results and reviewed the manuscript.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to F. S. Paolo.

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