Computer model documents the history of the West Antarctic ice sheet

Aug 28, 2009 By A'ndrea Elyse Messer
Computer model documents the history of the West Antarctic ice sheet
Image: David Pollard

(PhysOrg.com) -- One major threat of planetary warming is the melting of the great polar ice sheets, and the resulting rise in global sea level. Particularly worrisome to researchers is the fragility of the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS), whose bed lies well below sea-level, accelerating the natural flow between the grounded ice sheet itself and the floating ice shelves that make up its boundary.

When these floating shelves melt sufficiently, David Pollard said, they no longer buttress the grounded upstream, which then flows faster and rapidly drains the massive interior ice. The grounding line (the junction between the floating ice shelf and upstream ice resting on bedrock) retreats, converting more grounded ice to floating ice. Eventually, nearly all of the ice sheet on the Pacific side of Antarctica can disappear.

Indeed it has done so, as past climates have waxed and waned, but little was actually known about this history. Recently, however, Pollard, a senior research scientist at Penn State, and Robert M. DeConto, professor of at the University of Massachusetts, created a of WAIS’s last 5 million years. To specify past variations in snowfall, snowmelt and melting they relied on records of deep-sea oxygen isotope ratios that indicate temperature changes in the oceans.

"We found that the West Antarctic ice sheet varied a lot, collapsed and re-grew multiple times over that period," said Pollard. These changes have been rapid, and strongly influenced by ocean temperatures near the continent. "The ocean's warming and melting the bottom of the floating ice shelves has been the dominant control on West Antarctic ice variations."

Pollard and DeConto have compared their model to the early results of the ANtarctic geological DRILLing project (ANDRILL), a multinational collaboration to drill through the ice to sediment, in effect going back in time to recover a history of paleoenvironmental changes.

"The ice sheets in our model changed in ways that agree well with the data collected by the ANDRILL project," Pollard said. "Our modeling extends the reach of the drilling data to justify that the data represent the entire West Antarctic area and not just the spot where they drilled."

Along with the rapid appearance and disappearance of ice, the researchers note that both the ANDRILL record and their model show that, early in the 5-million year history, the periodicity of glaciation and melting was about 40,000 years, which matches the pattern in the Northern Hemisphere. According to Pollard, this pattern is probably attributable to the tilt of the Earth's axis, which varies with the same period. Nearer to the present, cycle time increases to about 100,000 years, in alignment with the Northern Hemisphere’s ice ages.

During past warm periods, the model also shows, major collapses take a few thousand years—the expected time scale of future collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet if ocean temperatures warm sufficiently.

The researchers note that when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been at about 400 parts per million, as in the early part of the ANDRILL record, West collapses were much more frequent.

"We are a little below 400 parts per million now and heading higher," Pollard said. "One of the next steps is to determine if human activity will make it warm enough to start the collapse."

Provided by Pennsylvania State University (news : web)

Explore further: Hurricane Edouard right environment for drone test (Update)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

West Antarctic ice comes and goes, rapidly

Mar 18, 2009

Researchers today worry about the collapse of West Antarctic ice shelves and loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet, but little is known about the past movements of this ice. Now climatologists from Penn State ...

Tidal motion influences Antarctic ice sheet

Dec 20, 2006

New research into the way the Antarctic ice sheet adds ice to the ocean reveals that tidal motion influences the flow of the one of the biggest ice streams draining the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

New structure found deep within West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Sep 23, 2004

Ice sheet more susceptible to change than previously thought Scientists have found a remarkable new structure deep within the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which suggests that the whole ice sheet is more susceptible to future ch ...

Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet melting, rate unknown

Feb 16, 2009

The Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets are melting, but the amounts that will melt and the time it will take are still unknown, according to Richard Alley, Evan Pugh professor of geosciences, Penn State.

Recommended for you

Tree rings and arroyos

9 hours ago

A new GSA Bulletin study uses tree rings to document arroyo evolution along the lower Rio Puerco and Chaco Wash in northern New Mexico, USA. By determining burial dates in tree rings from salt cedar and wi ...

NASA image: Agricultural fires in the Ukraine

11 hours ago

Numerous fires (marked with red dots) are burning in Eastern Europe, likely as a result of regional agricultural practices. The body of water at the lower left of this true-color Moderate Resolution Imaging ...

NASA marks Polo for a hurricane

11 hours ago

Hurricane Polo still appears rounded in imagery from NOAA's GOES-West satellite, but forecasters at the National Hurricane Center expect that to change.

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Velanarris
5 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
The researchers note that when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been at about 400 parts per million, as in the early part of the ANDRILL record, West Antarctic ice sheet collapses were much more frequent.

"We are a little below 400 parts per million now and heading higher," Pollard said. "One of the next steps is to determine if human activity will make it warm enough to start the collapse."
It was such a good abstract until the quoted piece above.

There was no massive CO2 generation occuring during the prior collapses, what makes anyone involved think that CO2 ppm has anything to do with oceanic temperature caused collapse of the ice shelves beyond the outgassing mechanism of the oceans as they warm in response to axial tilt variation?
GrayMouser
5 / 5 (2) Aug 28, 2009
Computer models are only as good as the understanding of the subject being modeled. Since the understanding is poor the model is questionable.
dachpyarvile
5 / 5 (1) Aug 30, 2009
During past warm periods, the model also shows, major collapses take a few thousand years%u2014the expected time scale of future collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet if ocean temperatures warm sufficiently.




Well, at least they mentioned that such collapses take place over thousands of years. Guess that puts another coffin nail into the NSIDC and others of their ilks' predictions of imminent Antarctic ice sheet collapse. :)

"One of the next steps is to determine if human activity will make it warm enough to start the collapse."


I think it will be interesting to see what comes of that study. You can bet that the IPCC and NSIDC will be up in arms should the evidence agree with the other evidence already found, such as isotope data and so forth, and shows that AGW is a crock full of crap.