Ice-sheet retreat controlled by the landscape

Ice-sheet retreat can halt temporarily during long phases of climate warming, a UK team including an expert from the University of Sheffield have revealed.

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The team has found that the geometry of channels beneath the ice can be a strong control on ice behaviour, temporarily hiding the signals of retreat.

The findings, which provide the first simulation of past ice-sheet retreat and collapse over a ten thousand year period in Antarctica, shed new light on what makes ice stable or unstable and will help refine predictions of future ice extent and global sea-level rise.

Dr Stephen Livingstone from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Geography said: “It is clear that today ice sheets are changing rapidly, but the future picture is less clear. By surveying former ice stream landscapes we can significantly improve models and understanding of ice-stream retreat.”

The results of the new research from Durham University, the University of Sheffield, the University of Cambridge, and the British Antarctic Survey are published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Lead author, Dr Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at the Department of Geography, Durham University, said: “Our research shows that the physical shape of the channels is a more important factor in controlling ice stability than was previously realised. Channel width can have a major effect on ice flow, and determines how fast retreat, and therefore sea-level rise, can happen.”

Marine-based ice streams are the fast flowing arteries of ice sheets draining approximately 90 per cent of the ice that reaches the sea. They flow through large channels where the ice can move thousands of metres a year. According to scientists, the unpredictable nature of ice streams makes forecasting ice-sheet retreat extremely difficult. If ice streams speed up they can cause sea-level rise.

Satellite imagery from the last 20 years has led to advances in our knowledge of ice sheet stability and has shown that many ice streams are getting thinner and retreating because the ocean and climate are warming. The new research shows that ice behaviour over thousands of years can successfully be simulated in places where ice streams meet the sea.

The researchers looked at the landscape of the seafloor in Marguerite Bay, in the Antarctic Peninsula, and saw that during a rapid phase of recession 13,000 years ago, retreat paused many times. Using a computer model designed to work in situations of rapid change, they found they could reproduce the same pattern in a series of simulations. These showed that ice dragged on the sides of the channel more where it was narrow, causing retreat to slow and in places temporarily stop for decades to centuries before retreat continued.

Many ice streams are found in channels with beds that are below sea level and that deepen inland. Current theory suggests that ice loss can increase rapidly in deeper water, but the new findings show that channel width plays a crucial role and that narrow bottlenecks in the landscape beneath the ice can cause retreat to slow down.

The research was financially supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, UK.

Additional information

With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, and 2007).

These prestigious awards recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world. The University’s research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, ICI, Slazenger, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. Its partnership with Leeds and York Universities in the White Rose Consortium has a combined research power greater than that of either Oxford or Cambridge.

Contact

For further information please contact: 

Paul Mannion
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 9851
p.f.mannion@sheffield.ac.uk