Sea ice can control Antarctic ice sheet stability, new research finds

13 May 2022

An international team, including University of Canterbury Associate Professor Wolfgang Rack and researchers from Cambridge and Newcastle universities, UK, have used a combination of historical satellite measurements, along with ocean and atmosphere records, to gain the most detailed understanding of how ice conditions are changing along the 1400km-long eastern Antarctic Peninsula.

  • Sea ice can control Antarctic ice sheet stability

    Young (blue) and landfast (smooth white) sea ice offshore of New Bedford Inlet, eastern Antarctic Peninsula, as imaged by the USGS/NASA Landsat 8 satellite on 5 March 2017. Image processed by Dr. Frazer Christie, Scott Polar Research Institute.

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The results, reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, suggest that sea ice plays an important role in stabilising ice shelves, much like ice shelves themselves stabilise and buttress ice sheets.

Lead researcher Dr Frazer Christie of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) says, “We’ve found that sea-ice change can either safeguard from, or set in motion, the calving of icebergs from large Antarctic ice shelves. Regardless of how the sea ice around Antarctica changes in a warming climate, our observations highlight the often-overlooked importance of sea-ice variability to the health of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.”

Despite the rapid melting of ice in many parts of Antarctica during the second half of the 20th century, researchers have found that the floating ice shelves which skirt the eastern Antarctic Peninsula have undergone sustained advance over the past 20 years. They found that 85% of the ice shelf perimeter in this part of Antarctica has advanced since the early 2000s, in contrast to the extensive retreat of the previous two decades. The advance is linked due to decade-scale changes in atmospheric circulation, which has led to more sea ice being carried to the coast by wind.

Ice shelves – floating sections of ice which are attached to land-based ice sheets – serve the vital purpose of buttressing against the uncontrolled release of inland ice to the ocean. During the late 20th century, high levels of warming in the eastern Antarctic Peninsula led to the catastrophic collapse of the Larsen A and B ice shelves in 1995 and 2002, respectively. These events drove the acceleration of ice towards the ocean, ultimately accelerating the Antarctic Peninsula’s contribution to sea level rise.

However, it’s possible that this period of ice advance may be ending. Since 2020, there has been a notable increase in the number of icebergs breaking away from the eastern Antarctic Peninsula. “It’s entirely possible we could be seeing a transition back to atmospheric patterns similar to those observed during the 1990s that encouraged sea-ice loss and, ultimately, more ice-shelf calving,” said co-author Associate Professor Wolfgang Rack from the University of Canterbury’s Gateway Antarctica research centre.

Currently, the jury is out on exactly how sea ice around Antarctica will evolve in response to climate change, and therefore influence sea level rise, with some models forecasting wholescale sea ice loss in the Southern Ocean, while others predict sea ice gain.

In 2019, Christie and his co-authors were part of a SPRI-led expedition to study ice conditions in the Weddell Sea offshore of the eastern Antarctic Peninsula, a notoriously difficult part of the Southern Ocean to reach given the thick and year-round presence of sea ice.

“During the expedition, we noted that parts of the ice-shelf coastline were at their most advanced position since satellite records began in the early 1960s,” said expedition chief scientist and study co-author Professor Julian Dowdeswell, also from SPRI.

Following the expedition, the team used satellite images going back 60 years, as well as state-of-the-art ocean and atmosphere models, to investigate in detail the spatial and temporal pattern of ice-shelf change.

So, what caused the ice shelves to advance? In the absence of atmosphere and ocean warming over the past 20 years, the dominant control was found to be a change in regional wind patterns over the Weddell Sea, which served to push sea ice against the ice shelves.

Between 1985 and 2002, in contrast, wind conditions in the same area caused sea ice to move away from the coast. By removing the buttressing effect of the sea ice and exposing the ice shelves to damaging ocean waves, stress on the ice shelves increased, ultimately leading to calving of icebergs.

In almost all cases throughout the satellite era, calving from the eastern Antarctic Peninsula’s ice shelves only occurred during or shortly after the removal of sea ice in some form.

The work was made possible thanks to the free, open-access availability of the historical satellite record by space agencies and partners including NASA and the joint European Commission—European Space Agency Copernicus Programme.

The research was supported in part by the Flotilla Foundation, Marine Archaeology Consultants Switzerland, and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

Reference:

Frazer D.W. Christie et al. ‘Antarctic ice-shelf advance driven by anomalous atmospheric and sea-ice circulation.’ Nature Geoscience (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-00938-x

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