Improving estimates of Antarctica’s contribution to sea level

Reducing the uncertainty in estimates of the sea level contribution from the westernmost part of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet

Start date
1 April, 2014
End date
31 March, 2019
The East Antarctic Ice Sheet in Coats Land, Antarctica

This research aims to improve estimates of Antarctica’s contribution to sea level. Sea level is currently rising at approximately 3mm/yr. If we are to understand why it is rising and how future sea-level rise will continue – perhaps accelerate – and lead to a wide range of societal impacts then we need to understand the different contributions to sea level. Some of the largest contributions come from the great ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland but the amount of ice being lost from Antarctica is particularly difficult to establish. There are three main ways to measure the amount of ice being lost or gained from Antarctica – its ‘mass balance’. These are (i) satellite altimetery (measuring very precisely how the ice sheet surface is going up or down through time); (ii) the input-output method (calculating the difference between estimates of how much snow falls on Antarctica, and how much ice breaks off at the coast or is lost by melting); (iii) satellite gravimetry (measuring minute changes in Earth’s gravitational field caused by loss or gain of ice in Antarctica through time).

Ideally, these three techniques would provide similar answers but they currently do not. All the techniques have problems or drawbacks and all are the subject of ongoing research. In this proposal we focus on the satellite gravimetry method. Mass balance from gravimetry is particularly tricky to calculate because the changes to the gravitational field are not only affected by ice loss/gain but also by mass moving around beneath the Earth’s crust. At the end of the last ice age, a large thickness of ice in Antarctica melted and the rocks deep within the Earth are still responding to this change 1000s of years later. The consequence of this response – which scientists call glacial-isostatic adjustment or ‘GIA’ – is that the satellite measurements have to be corrected by a very large amount that accounts for movements of the rocky material and thus to provide the ‘real’ figure for ice mass loss/gain. It is getting this correction right that has been so problematic because it requires us to know the history of the ice sheet (including past snow accumulation) for over 10,000 years and also to know the structure of the Earth underneath Antarctica. Recent projects including a previous one by our group that was funded by NERC have made substantial improvements in determining this correction but our recently published work has shown very clearly that we still lack data to pin down the GIA correction tightly enough in parts of East Antarctica. In other words there is still an unacceptable level of uncertainty in East Antarctica, which leads directly to uncertainty in sea-level contribution.

In this proposal we have identified a region called Coats Land, in East Antarctica, which accounts for the greatest remaining uncertainty in the GIA correction but where we have managed to identify suitable sites where we can obtain the necessary ice history information, new seismic measurements of crustal structure, and GPS measurements of crustal uplift (a key part of testing GIA models). By visiting these sites and undertaking some world-leading modelling using our field data and a synthesis of existing snow accumulation data we will provide a new and much improved GIA correction for Antarctica. Whilst our data collection focus will be on Coats Land our subsequent modelling effort will encompass all of Antarctica. The data will be used to develop an improved model of GIA in Antarctica in order to correct the GRACE dataset. We conservatively estimate that with the measurements and modelling that we propose to carry out then we can at least halve the total uncertainty in satellite gravimetry measurements of Antarctic mass balance, and probably do substantially better than this. This proposal raises the prospect of getting an improved estimate of the Antarctic contribution to presentday global sea level rise.

Beneficiaries of this work include:

  • Antarctic glaciologists attempting to reconcile the different Antarctic mass balance figures derived from each of the satellite-based approache
  • Climate and glaciological modellers, oceanographers seeking to understand the mass balance change in the two great ice sheets – Antarctica and Greenland – GIA modellers.
  • GIA models require two key inputs: an ice loading history and an Earth model. We will provide advances in both areas for Antarctica
  • Geodesists and geophysicists through improved coverage of GPS vertical and horziontal motions in a key area