Ice sheet

Last updated
A satellite composite image of Antarctica Antarctica 6400px from Blue Marble.jpg
A satellite composite image of Antarctica

An ice sheet, also known as a continental glacier, [1] is a mass of glacial ice that covers surrounding terrain and is greater than 50,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi). [2] The only current ice sheets are in Antarctica and Greenland; during the last glacial period at Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered much of North America, the Weichselian ice sheet covered northern Europe and the Patagonian Ice Sheet covered southern South America.


Ice sheets are bigger than ice shelves or alpine glaciers. Masses of ice covering less than 50,000 km2 are termed an ice cap. An ice cap will typically feed a series of glaciers around its periphery.

Aerial view of the ice sheet on Greenland's east coast Greenland-ice sheet hg.jpg
Aerial view of the ice sheet on Greenland's east coast

Although the surface is cold, the base of an ice sheet is generally warmer due to geothermal heat. In places, melting occurs and the melt-water lubricates the ice sheet so that it flows more rapidly. This process produces fast-flowing channels in the ice sheet — these are ice streams.

The present-day polar ice sheets are relatively young in geological terms. The Antarctic Ice Sheet first formed as a small ice cap (maybe several) in the early Oligocene, but retreating and advancing many times until the Pliocene, when it came to occupy almost all of Antarctica. The Greenland ice sheet did not develop at all until the late Pliocene, but apparently developed very rapidly with the first continental glaciation. This had the unusual effect of allowing fossils of plants that once grew on present-day Greenland to be much better preserved than with the slowly forming Antarctic ice sheet.

Antarctic ice sheet

The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million km2 (14 Mm2) and contains 30 million km3 of ice. Around 90% of the Earth's ice mass is in Antarctica, [3] which, if melted, would cause sea levels to rise by 58 meters. [4] The continent-wide average surface temperature trend of Antarctica is positive and significant at >0.05 °C/decade since 1957. [5]

The Antarctic ice sheet is divided by the Transantarctic Mountains into two unequal sections called the East Antarctic ice sheet (EAIS) and the smaller West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). The EAIS rests on a major land mass but the bed of the WAIS is, in places, more than 2,500 metres below sea level. It would be seabed if the ice sheet were not there. The WAIS is classified as a marine-based ice sheet, meaning that its bed lies below sea level and its edges flow into floating ice shelves. The WAIS is bounded by the Ross Ice Shelf, the Ronne Ice Shelf, and outlet glaciers that drain into the Amundsen Sea.

Greenland ice sheet

Map of Greenland Greenland map.svg
Map of Greenland

The Greenland ice sheet occupies about 82% of the surface of Greenland, and if melted would cause sea levels to rise by 7.2 metres. [4] Estimated changes in the mass of Greenland's ice sheet suggest it is melting at a rate of about 239 cubic kilometres (57 cubic miles) per year. [7] These measurements came from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite, launched in 2002, as reported by BBC News in August 2006. [8]

Ice sheet dynamics

Ice movement is dominated by the motion of glaciers, whose activity is determined by a number of processes. [9] Their motion is the result of cyclic surges interspersed with longer periods of inactivity, on both hourly and centennial time scales.

Predicted effects of global warming

The Greenland, and possibly the Antarctic, ice sheets have been losing mass recently, because losses by ablation including outlet glaciers exceed accumulation of snowfall. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), loss of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheet mass contributed, respectively, about 0.21 ± 0.35 and 0.21 ± 0.07 mm/year to sea level rise between 1993 and 2003. [10]

Carbon stores and fluxes in present day ice sheets (2019), and the predicted impact on carbon dioxide (where data exists).
Estimated carbon fluxes are measured in Tg C a (megatonnes of carbon per year) and estimated sizes of carbon stores are measured in Pg C (thousands of megatonnes of carbon). DOC = dissolved organic carbon, POC = particulate organic carbon. Carbon stores and fluxes in present day ice sheets.webp
Carbon stores and fluxes in present day ice sheets (2019), and the predicted impact on carbon dioxide (where data exists).
Estimated carbon fluxes are measured in Tg C a (megatonnes of carbon per year) and estimated sizes of carbon stores are measured in Pg C (thousands of megatonnes of carbon). DOC = dissolved organic carbon, POC = particulate organic carbon.

The IPCC projects that ice mass loss from melting of the Greenland ice sheet will continue to outpace accumulation of snowfall. Accumulation of snowfall on the Antarctic ice sheet is projected to outpace losses from melting. However, in the words of the IPCC, "Dynamical processes related to ice flow not included in current models but suggested by recent observations could increase the vulnerability of the ice sheets to warming, increasing future sea level rise. Understanding of these processes is limited and there is no consensus on their magnitude." More research work is therefore required to improve the reliability of predictions of ice-sheet response to global warming. In 2018, scientists discovered channels between the East and West Antarctic ice sheets that may allow melted ice to flow more quickly to the sea. [12]

The effects on ice sheets due to increasing temperature may accelerate, but as documented by the IPCC the effects are not easily projected accurately and in the case of the Antarctic, may trigger an accumulation of additional ice mass. If an ice sheet were ablated down to bare ground, less light from the sun would be reflected back into space and more would be absorbed by the land. The Greenland Ice Sheet covers 84% of the island and the Antarctic Ice Sheet covers approximately 98% of the continent. Due to the significant thickness of these ice sheets, global warming analysis typically focuses on the loss of ice mass from the ice sheets increasing sea level rise, and not on a reduction in the surface area of the ice sheets.

Until recently, ice sheets were viewed as inert components of the carbon cycle and were largely disregarded in global models. Research in the past decade has transformed this view, demonstrating the existence of uniquely adapted microbial communities, high rates of biogeochemical/physical weathering in ice sheets and storage and cycling of organic carbon in excess of 100 billion tonnes, as well as nutrients (see diagram). [11]

Related Research Articles

Glacier Persistent body of ice that is moving under its own weight

A glacier is a persistent body of dense ice that is constantly moving under its own weight. A glacier forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries. Glaciers slowly deform and flow under stresses induced by their weight, creating crevasses, seracs, and other distinguishing features. They also abrade rock and debris from their substrate to create landforms such as cirques and moraines. Glaciers form only on land and are distinct from the much thinner sea ice and lake ice that forms on the surface of bodies of water.

Cryosphere Those portions of Earths surface where water is in solid form

The cryosphere is an all-encompassing term for those portions of Earth's surface where water is in solid form, including sea ice, lake ice, river ice, snow cover, glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, and frozen ground. Thus, there is a wide overlap with the hydrosphere. The cryosphere is an integral part of the global climate system with important linkages and feedbacks generated through its influence on surface energy and moisture fluxes, clouds, precipitation, hydrology, atmospheric and oceanic circulation. Through these feedback processes, the cryosphere plays a significant role in the global climate and in climate model response to global changes. The term deglaciation describes the retreat of cryospheric features. Cryology is the study of cryospheres.

Climate of Antarctica

The climate of Antarctica is the coldest on Earth. The continent is also extremely dry, averaging 166 mm (6.5 in) of precipitation per year. Snow rarely melts on most parts of the continent, and, after being compressed, becomes the glacier ice that makes up the ice sheet. Weather fronts rarely penetrate far into the continent, because of the katabatic winds. Most of Antarctica has an ice-cap climate with very cold, generally extremely dry weather.

Ice shelf Large floating platform of ice caused by glacier flowing onto ocean surface

An ice shelf is a large floating platform of ice that forms where a glacier or ice sheet flows down to a coastline and onto the ocean surface. Ice shelves are only found in Antarctica, Greenland, Canada, and the Russian Arctic. The boundary between the floating ice shelf and the anchor ice that feeds it is the grounding line. The thickness of ice shelves can range from about 100 m (330 ft) to 1,000 m (3,300 ft).

West Antarctic Ice Sheet

The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is the segment of the continental ice sheet that covers West Antarctica, the portion of Antarctica on the side of the Transantarctic Mountains which lies in the Western Hemisphere. The WAIS is classified as a marine-based ice sheet, meaning that its bed lies well below sea level and its edges flow into floating ice shelves. The WAIS is bounded by the Ross Ice Shelf, the Ronne Ice Shelf, and outlet glaciers that drain into the Amundsen Sea.

Antarctic ice sheet Polar ice cap

The Antarctic ice sheet is one of the two polar ice caps of the Earth. It covers about 98% of the Antarctic continent and is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million square kilometres and contains 26.5 million cubic kilometres of ice. A cubic kilometer of ice weighs approximately one metric gigaton, meaning that the ice sheet weighs 26,500,000 gigatons. Approximately 61 percent of all fresh water on the Earth is held in the Antarctic ice sheet, an amount equivalent to about 58 m of sea-level rise. In East Antarctica, the ice sheet rests on a major land mass, while in West Antarctica the bed can extend to more than 2,500 m below sea level.

Greenland ice sheet Ice sheet covering ~80% of Greenland

The Greenland ice sheet is a vast body of ice covering 1,710,000 square kilometres (660,000 sq mi), roughly 79% of the surface of Greenland.

Melt pond Pools of open water that form on sea ice in the warmer months of spring and summer

Melt ponds are pools of open water that form on sea ice in the warmer months of spring and summer. The ponds are also found on glacial ice and ice shelves. Ponds of melted water can also develop under the ice.

Quaternary glaciation Series of alternating glacial and interglacial periods

The Quaternary glaciation, also known as the Pleistocene glaciation, is an alternating series of glacial and interglacial periods during the Quaternary period that began 2.58 Ma, and is ongoing. Although geologists describe the entire time period as an "ice age", in popular culture the term "ice age" is usually associated with just the most recent glacial period during the Pleistocene. Since planet Earth still has ice sheets, geologists consider the Quaternary glaciation to be ongoing, with the Earth now experiencing an interglacial period.

Retreat of glaciers since 1850 Shortening of glaciers by melting

The retreat of glaciers since 1850 affects the availability of fresh water for irrigation and domestic use, mountain recreation, animals and plants that depend on glacier-melt, and, in the longer term, the level of the oceans. Studied by glaciologists, the temporal coincidence of glacier retreat with the measured increase of atmospheric greenhouse gases is often cited as an evidentiary underpinning of global warming. Mid-latitude mountain ranges such as the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, Cascades, and the southern Andes, as well as isolated tropical summits such as Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, are showing some of the largest proportionate glacial losses.

East Antarctic Ice Sheet

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) is one of two large ice sheets in Antarctica, and the largest on the entire planet. The EAIS lies between 45° west and 168° east longitudinally.

Ice-sheet dynamics

Ice sheet dynamics describe the motion within large bodies of ice, such those currently on Greenland and Antarctica. Ice motion is dominated by the movement of glaciers, whose gravity-driven activity is controlled by two main variable factors: the temperature and strength of their bases. A number of processes alter these two factors, resulting in cyclic surges of activity interspersed with longer periods of inactivity, on both hourly and centennial time scales. Ice-sheet dynamics are of interest in modelling future sea level rise.

Sea level rise The current long-term trend for sea levels to rise mainly in response to global warming

Global sea level rise began around the start of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 2016, the sea level rose by 16–21 cm (6.3–8.3 in) on average. More precise data gathered from satellite radar measurements reveal an accelerating rise of 7.5 cm (3.0 in) from 1993 to 2017, which is a trend of roughly 30 cm (12 in) per century. This acceleration is due mostly to human-caused global warming, which is driving thermal expansion of seawater and the melting of land-based ice sheets and glaciers. Between 1993 and 2018, thermal expansion of the oceans contributed 42% to sea level rise; the melting of temperate glaciers, 21%; Greenland, 15%; and Antarctica, 8%. Climate scientists expect the rate to further accelerate during the 21st century.

Long-term effects of global warming

There are expected to be various long-term effects of global warming. Most discussion and research, including that by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, concentrates on the effects of global warming up to 2100, with only an outline of the effects beyond this.

Physical impacts of climate change

Climate change causes a variety of physical impacts on the climate system. The physical impacts of climate change foremost include globally rising temperatures of the lower atmosphere, the land, and oceans. Temperature rise is not uniform, with land masses and the Arctic region warming faster than the global average. Effects on weather encompass increased heavy precipitation, reduced amounts of cold days, increase in heat waves and various effects on tropical cyclones. The enhanced greenhouse effect causes the higher part of the atmosphere, the stratosphere, to cool. Geochemical cycles are also impacted, with absorption of CO
causing ocean acidification, and rising ocean water decreasing the ocean's ability to absorb further carbon dioxide. Annual snow cover has decreased, sea ice is declining and widespread melting of glaciers is underway. Thermal expansion and glacial retreat cause sea levels to increase. Retreat of ice mass may impact various geological processes as well, such as volcanism and earthquakes. Increased temperatures and other human interference with the climate system can lead to tipping points to be crossed such as the collapse of the thermohaline circulation or the Amazon rainforest. Some of these physical impacts also affect social and economic systems.

Deglaciation describes the transition from full glacial conditions during ice ages, to warm interglacials, characterized by global warming and sea level rise due to change in continental ice volume. Thus, it refers to the retreat of a glacier, an ice sheet or frozen surface layer, and the resulting exposure of the Earth's surface. The decline of the cryosphere due to ablation can occur on any scale from global to localized to a particular glacier. After the Last Glacial Maximum, the last deglaciation begun, which lasted until the early Holocene. Around much of Earth, deglaciation during the last 100 years has been accelerating as a result of climate change, partly brought on by anthropogenic changes to greenhouse gases.


Ice2sea is a program of scientific research funded by the European Union's Framework 7 Programme to study the effects of climate change on glaciation and the melting of ice caps and glaciers on sea level. The ice2sea project, a collaborative of 24 research institutions, which is headed by Prof David Vaughan, aims to reduce the uncertainty in sea-level projections which are of great economic and social importance to the European Union, especially as large areas of coastal area in Europe are below or less than a metre above sea level.

Global surface temperature Average temperature of the Earths surface

In earth science, global surface temperature (GST) is calculated by averaging the temperature at the surface of the sea and air temperature over land. In technical writing, scientists call long-term changes in GST global cooling or global warming. Periods of both have happened regularly throughout earth's history.

Climate change in Antarctica

The effects of climate change in Antarctica may include rising temperatures and increasing snowmelt and ice loss. A summary study in 2018 incorporating calculations and data from many other studies estimated that total ice loss was 43 gigatons per year on average during the period from 1992 to 2002 but has accelerated to an average of 220 gigatons per year during the five years from 2012 to 2017.

The Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) is an international scientific collaboration attempting to improve estimates of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheet contribution to sea level rise and to publish data and analyses concerning these subjects. IMBIE was founded in 2011 and is a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States, and contributes to assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). IMBIE has led to improved confidence in the measurement of ice sheet mass balance and the associated global sea-level contribution. The improvements were achieved through combination of ice sheet imbalance estimates developed from the independent satellite techniques of altimetry, gravimetry and the input-output method. Going forwards, IMBIE provides a framework for assessing ice sheet mass balance, and has an explicit aim to widen participation to enable the entire scientific community to become involved.


  1. American Meteorological Society, Glossary of Meteorology Archived 2012-06-23 at the Wayback Machine
  2. "Glossary of Important Terms in Glacial Geology". Archived from the original on 2006-08-29. Retrieved 2006-08-22.
  3. "Ice and Glaciers -The Water Cycle-USGS Water-Science School".
  4. 1 2 "Some physical characteristics of ice on Earth, Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)". Archived from the original on 2007-12-16. Retrieved 2007-12-16.
  5. Steig, E. J.; Schneider, D. P.; Rutherford, S. D.; Mann, M. E.; Comiso, J. C.; Shindell, D. T. (2009). "Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet surface since the 1957 International Geophysical Year". Nature . 457 (7228): 459–462. Bibcode:2009Natur.457..459S. doi:10.1038/nature07669. PMID   19158794.
  6. The map of Greenland is not on the same scale as the map of Antarctica; Greenland's area is approximately 15% of Antarctica's.
  7. Rasmus Benestad et al.: The Greenland Ice. 2006
  8. "Greenland melt 'speeding up'". 11 August 2006 via
  9. Greve, R.; Blatter, H. (2009). Dynamics of Ice Sheets and Glaciers. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-03415-2. ISBN   978-3-642-03414-5.
  10. Richard B. Alley et al.:Summary for Policymakers, A report of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  11. 1 2 Wadham, J.L., Hawkings, J.R., Tarasov, L., Gregoire, L.J., Spencer, R.G.M., Gutjahr, M., Ridgwell, A. and Kohfeld, K.E. (2019) "Ice sheets matter for the global carbon cycle". Nature communications, 10(1): 1–17. doi : 10.1038/s41467-019-11394-4. CC-BY icon.svg Material was copied from this source, which is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  12. Schlanger, Zoë (24 May 2018). "Scientists discovered massive hidden canyons in Antarctica that could spell bad news for the rest of the planet". Quartz. Retrieved 26 May 2018.

See Also

Further reading