Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface Project Update

Charting Ice Sheet Contributions to Global Sea Level Rise

An international team produced an integrated assessment of polar ice mass losses in 2012. Now efforts to provide an up-to-date assessment are under way, with an open invitation for participation.

By , Andrew Shepherd, Anna E. Hogg, Erik Ivins, Nicole Schlegel, Ian Joughin, Ben Smith, Gerhard Krinner, Gorka Moyano, Sophie Nowicki, Tony J. Payne, Eric Rignot, Isabella Velicogna, Ted Scambos, Michiel R. van den Broeke, and Pippa L. Whitehouse

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets hold enough water to potentially raise the global sea level by 65 meters in total [Bamber et al., 2013; Fretwell et al., 2013]. Mitigating the consequences of sea level rise effectively requires accurate monitoring and prediction of the contribution from the polar ice sheets.

In 2012, the first community assessment of ice mass losses from Antarctica and Greenland demonstrated confidence in our estimates, showing that measurements based on data from different classes of satellite sensors agreed with one another and that the combined rate of loss had tripled over the previous 2 decades. Now, we’ve begun a second phase of this assessment, with an open call for participation and an ambitious schedule to deliver annual updates.

In the past, there has been apparent disagreement among different satellite-based assessments of mass loss from the ice sheets, and even the most advanced global climate models struggle to resolve the detailed pattern of ice sheet imbalance. Consequently, future changes in sea level remain among the most uncertain of all climate projections. To make progress, we require a better understanding of the processes and mechanisms controlling ice sheet mass imbalance. This, in turn, relies on detailed and accurate observations.

Today, there are well over 150 individual assessments of ice sheet mass balance based on measurements acquired by at least 15 different satellite missions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has proven difficult to collectively interpret this observational record, not just because of differences in processing methods but also because of differences in the geographical and temporal extent of each survey.

The Ice sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) was established in 2011 with the dual aim of understanding the apparent differences in the results of ice sheet mass balance studies and providing a single consensus assessment. Supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, the IMBIE project, for the first time, brought together experts in the different satellite geodetic techniques for measuring ice sheet mass balance and also experts in modeling of the ancillary data sets in order to collectively tackle this problem.

Satellites Measure Ice Mass Loss

Scientists assess the contribution of Earth’s polar ice sheets to global sea level rise by determining changes in their mass—their mass balance. Because of the vast size and inaccessibility of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, these mass balance assessments are best made with measurements collected from satellite platforms.

There are three main ways in which data from satellites are used to measure ice sheet mass balance: by directly measuring the changes in mass using gravimetry, by measuring the changes in volume using altimetry, and by measuring the changes in the mass inputs and outputs using satellite measurements of the ice flow speed and modeled estimates of the surface mass balance (the mass budget method).

The First Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise

In the first exercise, the IMBIE team designed and carried out intercomparison experiments using common time periods and common definitions of ice sheet extent to understand the differences in the mass balance measurements. By adopting this consistent approach, the team found that there was, in fact, excellent agreement between estimates of ice sheet mass balance determined using entirely different approaches.

This consensus paved the way for the production of a single reconciled estimate of ice sheet mass balance [Shepherd et al., 2012], which was a timely contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [2013] assessment report. The IMBIE results showed that the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets contributed 3.7 and 7.4 millimeters to global sea levels, respectively, between 1992 and 2011, and—alarmingly—the combined contribution rose from about 10% to 30% of the global sea level trend over the same period [Beckley et al., 2010].

Progress Since 2012

Ice sheet mass balance before and after IMBIE.
Fig. 1. Estimates of (top) Greenland and (bottom) Antarctic ice sheet mass balance published before (red) and after (blue) the first Ice sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) assessment (gray). There are more than 150 estimates of ice sheet mass balance, more than half of which have been published since 2012.

In the years since the first IMBIE assessment, the launch of new satellites, the development of new techniques and geophysical corrections, and the emergence of new teams have led to a growing body of mass balance assessments. In total there have been an additional 52 published mass balance estimates for Greenland and 34 for Antarctica, which point to continuing mass losses from both ice sheets since 2011 (Figure 1). (A full list of references for the estimates included in the figure may be found here.)

In Greenland, where substantial interannual variability in mass balance has been common throughout the satellite record, a swing between extreme melting and accumulation events from 2012 to 2013–2014 [Tedesco et al., 2015] is consistent with large recorded mass loss followed by a temporary abatement. In Antarctica, the latest measurements from the European Space Agency satellite, CryoSat-2 [McMillan et al., 2014], point to further increases in ice losses. In light of all of these developments, it is now time for an updated community assessment of ice sheet mass balance.

The Next Assessment

Now that a framework for IMBIE has been established, we are conducting a second assessment this year, with rolling annual updates planned for thereafter. As in the first exercise, the general approach is to integrate, interpret, and report satellite estimates of ice sheet mass balance, with the overall aim of producing a community assessment of Greenland’s and Antarctica’s ongoing contributions to global sea level rise. IMBIE will also conduct additional experiments to improve our understanding of any differences that may emerge and of the processes that are driving ice sheet imbalance.

As in the first assessment, the exercise will be structured around five main experimental teams based on the techniques of gravimetry, altimetry, the mass budget method, and surface mass balance and glacial isostatic adjustment modeling. The exercise continues to be supported by ESA and NASA.

A key objective of this next phase of IMBIE is to broaden participation across the scientific community. We invite any team able to contribute a unique data set to one of our five experimental groups to join in our future assessments.

We will analyze unique data sets submitted to the assessment using technique-specific experiments before comparing and combining them with measurements from the other techniques. Our aim is to present the initial analysis at a community discussion meeting in late 2016, which all participants are invited to attend. In addition to discussing the experimental outcomes, this meeting will plan future assessments. The results of the assessment will then be reported in the peer-reviewed literature and released as a single record of ice sheet mass balance.

At this time, we invite members of the scientific community to register their interest in participating in our next assessment via the IMBIE project website, where further details on each experimental group can be found. This year’s deadline for registration is 31 July, and the submission of data sets will close at the end of September 2016. If you wish to participate in the exercise but cannot make this year’s deadline, however, we have designed IMBIE so that you can join in future years—gaining the involvement and support of the entire community is crucial for the project’s success.

References

Bamber, J. L., et al. (2013), A new bed elevation dataset for Greenland, Cryosphere, 7, 499–510, doi:10.5194/tc-7-499-2013.

Beckley, B. D., N. P. Zelensky, S. A. Holmes, F. G. Lemoine, R. D. Ray, G. T. Mitchum, S. D. Desai, and S. T. Brown (2010), Assessment of the Jason-2 extension to the TOPEX/Poseidon, Jason-1 sea-surface height time series for global mean sea level monitoring, Mar. Geod., 33(1), 447–471.

Fretwell, P., et al. (2013), Bedmap2: Improved ice bed, surface and thickness datasets for Antarctica, Cryosphere, 7, 375–393, doi:10.5194/tc-7-375-2013/

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013), Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by T. F. Stocker et al., 1535 pp., Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, U.K.

McMillan, M., A. Shepherd, A. Sundal, K. Briggs, A. Muir, A. Ridout, A. Hogg, and D. Wingham (2014), Increased ice losses from Antarctica detected by CryoSat-2, Geophys. Res. Lett., 41(11), 3899–3905, doi:10.1002/2014GL060111.

Shepherd, A., et al. (2012), A reconciled estimate of ice sheet mass balance, Science, 338(6111), 1183–1189.

Tedesco, M., J. E. Box, J. Cappelen, X. Fettweis, T. Mote, R. S. W. van de Wal, C. J. P. P. Smeets, and J. Wahr (2015), Greenland Ice Sheet, in Arctic Report Card: Update for 2014, Natl. Oceanic and Atmos. Admin., Silver Spring, Md. [Available at http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/report14/greenland_ice_sheet.html.]

Author Information

Kate H. Briggs, Andrew Shepherd, and Anna E. Hogg, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, Leeds, U.K.; email: [email protected]; Erik Ivins and Nicole Schlegel, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.; Ian Joughin and Ben Smith, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle; Gerhard Krinner, Laboratoire de Glaciologie et Géophysique de l’Environnement, Université Joseph Fourier, Grenoble, France; Gorka Moyano, isardSAT, Barcelona, Spain; Sophie Nowicki, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; Tony J. Payne, University of Bristol, Bristol, U.K.; Eric Rignot and Isabella Velicogna, University of California, Irvine; Ted Scambos, National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder; Michiel R. van den Broeke, University of Utrecht, Utrecht, Netherlands; and Pippa L. Whitehouse, University of Durham, Durham, U.K.

Citation: Briggs, K. H., et al. (2016), Charting ice sheet contributions to global sea level rise, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO055719. Published on 18 July 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
  • Steve Case

    We are told that “The IMBIE results showed that the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets contributed 3.7 and 7.4 millimeters to global sea levels, respectively, between 1992 and 2011,”

    That comes to 0.6 mm/yr or two inches by 2100

    • Mavenish

      Only true provided that you ignore the acceleration trend in Greenland ice loss, assume that Antarctica remains stable throughout the century, and also ignore the expansion of ocean water with heat content.

      • Steve Case

        Thanks for the reply. If the rate of sea level rise were accelerating, we should see that in the data from the tide gauges and satellites.