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Ice Sheets Programme Summary

Sastrugi - windblown snow waves formed by the prevailing wind - in the inland ice sheet, Antarctica
Sastrugi - windblown snow waves formed by the prevailing wind - in the inland ice sheet, Antarctica

Introduction

Science Leader: Prof David Vaughan (dgv@bas.ac.uk)

The loss of ice from ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland is a major source of current sea-level rise, and one that is accelerating rapidly. A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) highlighted that the greatest uncertainty in projections of future sea-level rise is due to a lack of knowledge about ice sheets. Improved understanding of key ice-sheet processes is urgently required to allow reliable predictions of future sea-level change.

The IceSheets programme examines the role of ice sheets in the Earth System, and the processes that control ice-sheet change. It monitors current change and sets this in context with the past. BAS scientists produce tools to predict how ice sheets will change over time, allowing more accurate projections for increases in global sea level.

Programme Goals

  • To improve understanding of the ocean-atmosphere and bed interactions controlling ice-sheet flow and ice-sheet evolution
  • To build and apply a robust mathematical and numerical framework for computer simulation of ice-sheet change and sea-level rise
  • To determine current glacial change in the critical areas of the polar ice sheets
  • To establish improved histories of ice-sheet change to provide context and constraint for future projections
  • To provide robust simulations of ice-sheet change.

Delivering the results

Maps of ice-sheet change have shown the areas that contain important and pressing questions regarding the Antarctic contribution to sea-level rise. In particular, the rapidly thinning ice sheet in the Amundsen Sea Embayment of West Antarctica could add massively to future sea-level rise. The IceSheets programme will therefore focus on the most rapidly changing areas of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and the Antarctica Peninsula (AP).

Swath bathymetric image of the seafloor in the western Amundsen Sea embayment, showing streamlined landforms, scours and channels generated at the bed of former fast-flowing ice streams
Swath bathymetric image of the seafloor in the western Amundsen Sea embayment, showing streamlined landforms, scours and channels generated at the bed of former fast-flowing ice streams

Data from shipborne and oversnow fieldwork will improve ice-sheet histories, which are the basis for testing and validating models of ice-sheet change. This will improve understanding of the global forces that control deglaciation.

The IceSheets programme will measure and monitor current rates of ice-sheet change and investigate the processes that control ice-sheet dynamics and evolution. Focussing on key glacier systems, it will develop techniques for mapping the thermal and mechanical conditions beneath ice sheets. The IceSheets programme will improve the basic parameterized descriptions of subglacial processes that will be incorporated in ice-sheet models.

New tools for ice-sheet modelling, developed through data assimilation techniques, will be applied to key glacial systems in Antarctica (e.g. West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula), and in the Arctic (e.g. West Greenland).

The rates of glacial change on the Antarctic Peninsula have increased recently. The IceSheets programme will begin studies of this example of a highly sensitive alpine glacier system — a mountain range containing many individual glaciers and subject to summer melting.

National and International Context

The IceSheets programme will lead UK and international initiatives on ice-sheet change. It will seek new opportunities in the Arctic, especially deployment of techniques that we have successfully developed in Antarctica in Greenland.

Programme information

Science Leader:
Professor David Vaughan (dgv@bas.ac.uk)

Related NERC Science Themes:
Earth system science
Natural Hazards

The programme office of ice2sea, a major collaborative science programme funded by the European Union Framework-7 scheme, is coordinated and hosted by BAS. This programme involves 24 European and international partners, with a budget of €12.5M. Its primary objective is to deliver more accurate projections of sea-level rise to European policy-makers and the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment.

IceSheets will also continue to provide direct advice to UK government, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

The IceSheets programme addresses NERC’s Science Themes on Earth System Science, Climate System and Natural Hazards. In particular, it addresses the Earth System Science sub-challenge on understanding cryospheric change.

Glossary of terms
Parameterized descriptions
A simplified description of complex physical processes used by computer modellers
Deglaciation
Global process of ice sheet retreat and sea-level rise
Subglacial
The environment beneath an ice sheet, whether the ice sheet is 10 metres or 3 km thick.
Ice-sheet histories
An interpreted history of ice-sheet extent and thickness with dates provided by geological analyses and sea-level rise.