IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Antarctic Ice Sheet

With rising global temperature, GCMs indicate increasingly positive SMB for the Antarctic Ice Sheet as a whole because of greater accumulation (Section For stabilisation in 2100 with SRES A1B atmospheric composition, antarctic SMB would contribute 0.4 to 2.0 mm yr–1 of sea level fall (Table 10.7). Continental ice sheet models indicate that this would be offset by tens of percent by increased ice discharge (Section, but still give a negative contribution to sea level, of –0.8 m by 3000 in one simulation with antarctic warming of about 4.5°C (Huybrechts and De Wolde, 1999).

However, discharge could increase substantially if buttressing due to the major West Antarctic ice shelves were reduced (see Sections and, and could outweigh the accumulation increase, leading to a net positive antarctic sea level contribution in the long term. If the Amundsen Sea sector were eventually deglaciated, it would add about 1.5 m to sea level, while the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) would account for about 5 m (Vaughan, 2007). Contributions could also come in this manner from the limited marine-based portions of East Antarctica that discharge into large ice shelves.

Weakening or collapse of the ice shelves could be caused either by surface melting or by thinning due to basal melting. In equilibrium experiments with mixed-layer ocean models, the ratio of antarctic to global annual warming is 1.4 ± 0.3. Following reasoning in Section and Appendix 10.A, it appears that mean summer temperatures over the major West Antarctic ice shelves are about as likely as not to pass the melting point if global warming exceeds 5°C, and disintegration might be initiated earlier by surface melting. Observational and modelling studies indicate that basal melt rates depend on water temperature near to the base, with a constant of proportionality of about 10 m yr–1 °C–1 indicated for the Amundsen Sea ice shelves (Rignot and Jacobs, 2002; Shepherd et al., 2004) and 0.5 to 10 m yr–1 °C–1 for the Amery ice shelf (Williams et al., 2002). If this order of magnitude applies to future changes, a warming of about 1°C under the major ice shelves would eliminate them within centuries. We are not able to relate this quantitatively to global warming with any confidence, because the issue has so far received little attention, and current models may be inadequate to treat it because of limited resolution and poorly understood processes. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to suppose that sustained global warming would eventually lead to warming in the seawater circulating beneath the ice shelves.

Because the available models do not include all relevant processes, there is much uncertainty and no consensus about what dynamical changes could occur in the Antarctic Ice Sheet (see, e.g., Vaughan and Spouge, 2002; Alley et al., 2005a). One line of argument is to consider an analogy with palaeoclimate (see Box 4.1). Palaeoclimatic evidence that sea level was 4 to 6 m above present during the last interglacial may not all be explained by reduction in the Greenland Ice Sheet, implying a contribution from the Antarctic Ice Sheet (see Section 6.4.3). On this basis, using the limited available evidence, sustained global warming of 2°C (Oppenheimer and Alley, 2005) above present-day temperatures has been suggested as a threshold beyond which there will be a commitment to a large sea level contribution from the WAIS. The maximum rates of sea level rise during previous glacial terminations were of the order of 10 mm yr–1 (Church et al., 2001). We can be confident that future accelerated discharge from WAIS will not exceed this size, which is roughly an order of magnitude increase in present-day WAIS discharge, since no observed recent acceleration has exceeded a factor of ten.

Another line of argument is that there is insufficient evidence that rates of dynamical discharge of this magnitude could be sustained over long periods. The WAIS is 20 times smaller than the LGM NH ice sheets that contributed most of the melt water during the last deglaciation at rates that can be explained by surface melting alone (Zweck and Huybrechts, 2005). In the study of Huybrechts and De Wolde (1999), the largest simulated rate of sea level rise from the Antarctic Ice Sheet over the next 1 kyr is 2.5 mm yr–1. This is dominated by dynamical discharge associated with grounding line retreat. The model did not simulate ice streams, for which widespread acceleration would give larger rates. However, the maximum loss of ice possible from rapid discharge of existing ice streams is the volume in excess of flotation in the regions occupied by these ice streams (defined as regions of flow exceeding 100 m yr–1; see Section This volume (in both West and East Antarctica) is 230,000 km3, equivalent to about 0.6 m of sea level, or about 1% of the mass of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, most of which does not flow in ice streams. Loss of ice affecting larger portions of the ice sheet could be sustained at rapid rates only if new ice streams developed in currently slow-moving ice. The possible extent and rate of such changes cannot presently be estimated, since there is only very limited understanding of controls on the development and variability of ice streams. In this argument, rapid discharge may be transient and the long-term sign of the antarctic contribution to sea level depends on whether increased accumulation is more important than large-scale retreat of the grounding line.