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West Antarctic Ice Sheet (Dynamics) -- Summary
For quite some time now, the world's climate alarmists have obsessed over what they contend will be the imminent demise of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) if human-induced CO2 emissions are not dramatically reduced. As Al Gore (2006) has phrased it, if "half of Antarctica melted or broke up and slipped into the sea, sea levels worldwide would increase by between 18 and 20 feet." But is this really about to happen? In what follows, we briefly review the findings of a number of studies of the dynamics of various components of the WAIS and what they suggest about the subject.

Writing in the journal Science were Bindschadler and Vornberger (1998), who utilized satellite imagery taken since 1963 to examine spatial and temporal changes of Ice Stream B, which flows into the Ross Ice Shelf. The data indicated that since that time, the ice stream's width had increased by nearly 4 kilometers, at a rate that was, in their words, an "order of magnitude faster than models have predicted." However, they reported that the flow speed of the ice stream had decreased over this time period by about 50 percent, noting that "such high rates of change in velocity greatly complicate the calculation of mass balance of the ice sheet," and that such changes "do not resolve the overriding question of the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."

Bindschadler (1998) reviewed what was known about the WAIS for Science and analyzed its historical retreat in terms of its grounding line and ice front. This work revealed that from the time of the Last Glacial Maximum to the present, the retreat of the WAIS's grounding line had been faster than that of its ice front, which resulted in an expanding Ross Ice Shelf. In fact, Bindschadler reported that "the ice front now appears to be nearly stable," although its grounding line appeared to be retreating at a rate that suggested complete dissolution of the WAIS in another 4,000 to 7,000 years. Such a retreat would indeed result in a sustained sea level rise of 8 to 13 cm per century. However, even the smallest of these sea level rates-of-rise would require, according to Bindschadler, "a large negative mass balance for all of West Antarctica," and there were no broad-based data to support that scenario.

Switching from Science to Nature, Oppenheimer (1998) reviewed 122 studies that dealt with the stability of the WAIS and its effects on global sea level, concluding that "human-induced climate change may play a significant role in controlling the long-term stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and in determining its contribution to sea-level change in the near future." Other of his statements, however, seemed to detract from this conclusion. He noted, for example, that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "estimated a zero Antarctic contribution to sea-level rise over the past century, and projected a small negative (about -1 cm) contribution for the twenty-first century." Furthermore, with respect to potential anthropogenic modification of the state and behavior of the atmosphere and ocean above and around Antarctica, he acknowledged that "measurements are too sparse to enable the observed changes to be attributed to any such [human-induced] global warming." And in the case of sea-ice extent, he admitted there appeared to not even be a modification; for he stated that "the IPCC assessment is that no trend has yet emerged."

Oppenheimer concluded his review with four scenarios of the future based upon various assumptions. One was that the WAIS will experience a sudden collapse that causes a 4-6 m sea-level rise within the coming century. However, he stated that this scenario "may be put aside for the moment, because no convincing model of it has been presented." A second scenario had the WAIS gradually disintegrating and contributing to a slow sea-level rise over two centuries, followed by a more rapid disintegration over the following 50 to 200 years. Once again, however, he noted that "progress on understanding [the] WAIS over the past two decades has enabled us to lower the relative likelihood of [this] scenario."

In another scenario, the WAIS takes 500-700 years to disappear, as it raises sea-level by 60-120 cm per century. Oppenheimer assesses the relative likelihood of this scenario to be the highest of all, "but with low confidence," as he puts it. Last of all is what occurs if ice streams slow, as a result of internal ice sheet readjustments, and the discharge of grounded ice decreases, which could well happen, even if ice shelves thin and major fast-moving glaciers do not slow. In such a situation, he notes that "the Antarctic contribution to sea-level rise turns increasingly negative," i.e., sea level falls. And in commenting upon the suite of scenarios just described, Oppenheimer emphatically states that "it is not possible to place high confidence in any specific prediction about the future of WAIS."

Also writing in Nature, Bell et al. (1998) used aerogeophysical data to investigate processes that govern fast moving ice streams on the WAIS. In conjunction with various models, these data suggested a close correlation between the margins of various ice streams and the underlying sedimentary basins, which appeared to act as lubricants for the overlying ice. As a result, the seven scientists suggested that the positions of ice-stream margins and their onsets were controlled by features of the underlying sedimentary basins; and they concluded that "geological structures beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet have the potential to dictate the evolution of the dynamic ice system, modulating the influence of changes in the global climate system," although their work did not indicate what effect, if any, a modest rise in near-surface air temperature might have on this phenomenon.

Returning to Science, Rignot (1998) reported on satellite radar measurements of the grounding line of Pine Island Glacier from 1992 to 1996, which were studied to determine whether or not this major ice stream in remote West Antarctica was advancing or retreating. The data indicated that the glacier's grounding line had retreated inland at a rate of 1.2 0.3 kilometers per year over the four-year period of the study; and Rignot suggested that this retreat may have been the result of a slight increase in ocean water temperature. Because the study had utilized only four years of data, however, questions concerning the long-term stability of the WAIS, in the words of the researcher, "cannot be answered at present." In addition, although the glacier's grounding line had been found to be retreating, subsequent satellite images suggested that the location of the ice front had remained stable.

Finally advancing from 1998 to 1999, but still publishing in the journal Science, Conway et al. (1999) examined previously reported research, while conducting some of their own, dealing with the retreat of the WAIS since its maximum glacial extent some 20,000 years ago. In doing so, they determined that the ice sheet's grounding line remained near its maximum extent until about 10,000 years ago, whereupon it began to retreat at a rate of about 120 meters per year. This work also indicated that at the end of the 20th century it was retreating at about the same rate, which suggests that if it continues to behave as it has in the past, complete deglaciation of the WAIS will occur in about 7000 years. The researchers thus concluded that the modern-day grounding-line retreat of the WAIS is part of an ongoing recession that has been underway since the early to mid-Holocene; and that "it is not a consequence of anthropogenic warming or recent sea level rise." Consequently, climate alarmists who claim that CO2-induced global warming is responsible for every inch of WAIS retreat, as well as every iceberg that breaks free of the ice sheet, are not justified in making such claims.

Stepping another year into the future, Stenoien and Bentley (2000) mapped the catchment region of Pine Island Glacier using radar altimetry and synthetic aperture radar interferometry, which they used to develop a velocity map that revealed a system of tributaries that channel ice from the catchment area into the fast-flowing glacier. Then, by combining the velocity data with information on ice thickness and snow accumulation rates, they were able to calculate, within an uncertainty of 30%, that the mass balance of the catchment region was not significantly different from zero.

One year later, Shepherd et al. (2001) used satellite altimetry and interferometry to determine the rate of change of the ice thickness of the entire Pine Island Glacier drainage basin between 1992 and 1999. This work revealed that the grounded glacier thinned by up to 1.6 meters per year between 1992 and 1999. Of this phenomenon, the researchers wrote that "the thinning cannot be explained by short-term variability in accumulation and must result from glacier dynamics," and since glacier dynamics typically respond to phenomena operating on time scales of hundreds to thousands of years, this observation would argue against 20th-century warming being a primary cause of the thinning. Shepherd et al. additionally say they could "detect no change in the rate of ice thinning across the glacier over a 7-year period," which also suggests that a long-term phenomenon of considerable inertia must be at work in this particular situation.

But what if the rate of glacier thinning, which sounds pretty dramatic, were to continue unabated? The researchers state that "if the trunk continues to lose mass at the present rate it will be entirely afloat within 600 years." And if that happens, they say they "estimate the net contribution to eustatic sea level to be 6 mm," which means that over each century of the foreseeable future, we could expect global sea level to rise by about one millimeter, or about the thickness of a paper clip.

Publishing in same year were Pudsey and Evans (2001), who studied ice-rafted debris obtained from four cores in Prince Gustav Channel, which until 1995 was covered by floating ice shelves. Their efforts indicated that the ice shelves had also retreated in mid-Holocene time, but that, in their words, "colder conditions after about 1.9 ka allowed the ice shelf to reform." Although they thus concluded that the ice shelves are sensitive indicators of regional climate change, they were careful to state that "we should not view the recent decay as an unequivocal indicator of anthropogenic climate change." Indeed, the disappearance of the ice shelves was not unique; it had happened before without our help, and it could well have happened again on its own. In fact, the breakup of the Prince Gustav Channel ice shelves was likely nothing more than the culmination of the Antarctic Peninsula's natural recovery from the cold conditions of Little Ice Age, as has been observed in many places throughout the Northern Hemisphere and several parts of the Southern Hemisphere as well (see Little Ice Age in our Subject Index).

Taking another step into the future, Raymond (2002) presented a brief appraisal of the status of the world's major ice sheets. His primary conclusions relative to the WAIS were that (1) "substantial melting on the upper surface of WAIS would occur only with considerable atmospheric warming," (2) of the three major WAIS drainages, the ice streams that drain northward to the Amundsen Sea have accelerated, widened and thinned "over substantial distances back into the ice sheet," but that "the eastward drainage toward the Weddell Sea is close to mass balance." And (3) of the westward drainage into the Ross Ice Shelf, "over the last few centuries, margins of active ice streams migrated inward and outward," while the "overall mass balance has changed from loss to gain," as "a currently active ice stream (Whillans) has slowed by about 20% over recent decades."

In a summary statement that takes account of these observations, Raymond says that "the total mass of today's ice sheets is changing only slowly, and even with climate warming increases in snowfall should compensate for additional melting," such as might possibly occur for the WAIS if the planet's temperature continues its post-Little Ice Age rebound.

Fast-forward another year and Stone et al. (2003) -- working on western Marie Byrd Land -- report how they determined cosmogenic 10Be exposure dates of glacially-transported cobbles in elevation transects on seven peaks of the Ford Ranges between the ice sheet's present grounding line and the Clark Mountains some 80 km inland. Based on these ages and the elevations at which the cobbles were found, they reconstructed a history of ice-sheet thinning over the past 10,000-plus years. This history showed, in their words, that "the exposed rock in the Ford Ranges, up to 700 m above the present ice surface, was deglaciated within the past 11,000 years," and that "several lines of evidence suggest that the maximum ice sheet stood considerably higher than this."

Stone et al. additionally report that the consistency of the exposure age versus elevation trends of their data "indicates steady deglaciation since the first of these peaks emerged from the ice sheet some time before 10,400 years ago," and that the mass balance of the region "has been negative throughout the Holocene." The researchers also say their results "add to the evidence that West Antarctic deglaciation continued long after the disappearance of the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets and may still be under way," noting that the ice sheet in Marie Byrd Land "shows the same pattern of steady Holocene deglaciation as the marine ice sheet in the Ross Sea," where ice "has thinned and retreated since 7000 years ago," adding that "there is strong evidence that the limit of grounded ice in both regions -- and in Pine Island Bay -- is still receding."

As long contended by scientists who disagree with climate-alarmist claims that we are witnessing the CO2-induced "early stages of rapid ice sheet collapse, with potential near-term impacts on the world's coastlines" -- as described by Ackert (2003) -- the work of Stone et al. convincingly demonstrates that the current thinning and retreat of the WAIS are merely manifestations of a slow but steady deglaciation that has been going on and on and on, ever since the beginning-of-the-end of the last great ice age. This phenomenon is unabashedly used by climate alarmists to scare people into believing anthropogenic CO2 emissions are rapidly leading to the demise of the WAIS; but Stone et al. say something quite different, i.e., that "the pattern of recent change is consistent with the idea that thinning of the WAIS over the past few thousand years is continuing," while Ackert makes the point even plainer, when he says that "recent ice sheet dynamics appear to be dominated by the ongoing response to deglacial forcing thousands of years ago, rather than by a recent anthropogenic warming or sea level rise."

In conclusion, the massive ice repository that is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is not "slip-sliding away" and about to redefine the world's coastlines in response to rising sea levels, as contended by folks such as Al Gore and James Hansen. It seems to be behaving quite nicely, just as it has for thousands of prior years.

Ackert Jr., R.P. 2003. An ice sheet remembers. Science 299: 57-58.

Bell, R.E., Blankenship, D.D., Finn, C.A., Morse, D.L., Scambos, T.A., Brozena, J.M. and Hodge, S.M. 1998. Influence of subglacial geology on the onset of a West Antarctic ice stream from aerogeophysical observations. Nature 394: 58-62.

Bindschadler, R. 1998. Future of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science 282: 428-429.

Bindschadler, R. and Vornberger, P. 1998. Changes in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet since 1963 from declassified satellite photography. Science 279: 689-692.

Conway, H., Hall, B.L., Denton, G.H., Gades, A.M. and Waddington, E.D. 1999. Past and future grounding-line retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science 286: 280-283.

Gore, A. 2006. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Rodale, Emmaus, PA, USA.

Oppenheimer, M. 1998. Global warming and the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Nature 393: 325-332.

Pudsey, C.J. and Evans, J. 2001. First survey of Antarctic sub-ice shelf sediments reveals mid-Holocene ice shelf retreat. Geology 29: 787-790.

Raymond, C.F. 2002. Ice sheets on the move. Science 298: 2147-2148.

Rignot, E.J. 1998. Fast recession of a West Antarctic glacier. Science 281: 549-550.

Shepherd, A., Wingham, D.J., Mansley, J.A.D. and Corr, H.F.J. 2001. Inland thinning of Pine Island Glacier, West Antarctica. Science 291: 862-864.

Stenoien, M.D. and Bentley, C.R. 2000. Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica: A study of the catchment using interferometric synthetic aperture radar measurements and radar altimetry. Journal of Geophysical Research 105: 21,761-21,779.

Stone, J.O., Balco, G.A., Sugden, D.E., Caffee, M.W., Sass III, L.C., Cowdery, S.G. and Siddoway, C. 2003. Holocene deglaciation of Marie Byrd Land, West Antarctica. Science 299: 99-102.

Last updated 17 September 2008