Skip to main content Accessibility help

Ice sheet mass balance and sea level

  • I. Allison (a1), R.B. Alley (a2), H.A. Fricker (a3), R.H. Thomas (a4) and R.C. Warner (a1)...

Determining the mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets (GIS and AIS) has long been a major challenge for polar science. But until recent advances in measurement technology, the uncertainty in ice sheet mass balance estimates was greater than any net contribution to sea level change. The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR4) was able, for the first time, to conclude that, taken together, the GIS and AIS have probably been contributing to sea level rise over the period 1993–2003 at an average rate estimated at 0.4 mm yr-1. Since the cut-off date for work included in AR4, a number of further studies of the mass balance of GIS and AIS have been made using satellite altimetry, satellite gravity measurements and estimates of mass influx and discharge using a variety of techniques. Overall, these studies reinforce the conclusion that the ice sheets are contributing to present sea level rise, and suggest that the rate of loss from GIS has recently increased. The largest unknown in the projections of sea level rise over the next century is the potential for rapid dynamic collapse of ice sheets.

Corresponding author
Hide All
Alley, R.B., Spencer, M.K.Anandakrishnan, S. 2007. Ice-sheet mass balance: assessment, attribution and prognosis. Annals of Glaciology, 46, 17.
Alley, R.B., Dupont, T.K., Parizek, B.R.Anandakrishnan, S. 2005. Access of surface meltwater to beds of sub-freezing glaciers: preliminary insights. Annals of Glaciology, 40, 814.
Arnold, A.Sharp, M. 2002. Flow variability in the Scandinavian ice sheet: modelling the coupling between ice sheet flow and hydrology. Quaternary Science Reviews, 21, 485502.
Arthern, R.J., Winebrenner, D.P.Vaughan, D.G. 2006. Antarctic snow accumulation mapped using polarization of 4.3-cm wavelength microwave emission. Journal of Geophysical Research, 111, 10.1029/2004JD005667.
Bell, R.E. 2008. The role of subglacial water in ice-sheet mass balance. Nature Geoscience, 1, 297304.
Bell, R.E., Studinger, M., Shuman, C.A., Fahnestock, M.A.Joughin, I. 2007. Large subglacial lakes in East Antarctica at the onset of fast-flowing ice streams. Nature, 445, 904907.
Bentley, C.R., Thomas, R.H.Velicogna, I. 2007. Ice sheets. In Global outlook for ice and snow. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, 99113.
Box, J.E., Bromwich, D.H., Veenhuis, B.A., Bai, L.S., Stroeve, J.C., Rogers, J.C., Steffen, K., Haran, T.Wang, S.H. 2006. Greenland ice sheet surface mass balance variability (1988–2004) from calibrated Polar MM5 output. Journal of Climate, 19, 27832800.
Budd, W.F.Warner, R.C. 1996. A computer scheme for rapid calculations of balance flux distributions. Annals of Glaciology, 23, 2127.
Cazenave, A., Dominh, K., Guinehut, S., Berthier, E., Llovel, W., Ramillien, G., Ablain, M.Larnicol, G. 2009. Sea level budget over 2003–2008: a reevaluation from GRACE space gravimetry, satellite altimetry and ARGO. Global and Planetary Change, 65, 8388.
Chen, J., Wilson, C.Tapley, B. 2006a. Satellite gravity measurements confirm accelerated melting of Greenland Ice Sheet. Science, 313, 1958.
Chen, J., Wilson, C., Blankenship, D.Tapley, B. 2006b. Antarctic mass rates from GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters, 33, L11502.
Church, J.A.White, N.J. 2006. A 20th century acceleration in global sea level rise. Geophysical Research Letters, 33, 10.1029/2005GL024826.
Church, J.A., White, N.J., Aarup, T., Wilson, W.S., Woodworth, P.L., Domingues, C.M., Hunter, J.R.Lambeck, K. 2008. Understanding global sea levels: past, present and future. Sustainability Science, 3, 10.1007/s11625-008-0042-4.
Cook, A.J., Fox, A.J., Vaughan, D.G.Ferrigno, J.G. 2005. Retreating glacier-fronts on the Antarctic Peninsula over the last 50 years. Science, 308, 541544.
Csatho, B., Schenk, T., van der Veen, C.J.Krabill, W.B. 2008. Intermittent thinning of Jakobshavn Isbræ, west Greenland, since the Little Ice Age. Journal of Glaciology, 54, 131144.
Cuffey, K.M.Marshall, S.J. 2000. Substantial contribution to sea level rise during the last interglacial from the Greenland Ice Sheet. Nature, 404, 591594.
Das, S.B., Joughin, I., Behn, M.D., Howat, I.M., King, M.A., Lizarralde, D.Bhatia, M.P. 2008. Fracture propagation to the base of the Greenland ice sheet during supraglacial lake drainage. Science, 320, 778781.
Davis, C.H., Li, Y., McConnell, J.R., Frey, M.M.Hanna, E. 2005. Snowfall-driven growth in East Antarctic ice sheet mitigates recent sea level rise. Science, 308, 18981901.
Domingues, C.M., Church, J.A., White, N.J., Gleckler, P.J., Wijffels, S.E., Barker, P.M.Dunn, J.R. 2008. Improved estimates of upper-ocean warming and multi-decadal sea level rise. Nature, 453, 10.1038/nature07080.
Drewry, D.J., Jordan, S.R.Jankowski, E. 1981. Measured properties of the Antarctic ice sheet: surface configuration, ice thickness, volume and bedrock characteristics. Annals of Glaciology, 3, 8391.
Dupont, T.K.Alley, R.B. 2005. Assessment of the importance of ice-shelf buttressing to ice-sheet flow. Geophysical Research Letters, 32, 10.1029/2004GL022024.
Ekstrom, G., Nettles, M.Tsai, V.C. 2006. Seasonality and increasing frequency of Greenland glacial earthquakes. Science, 311, 1756.
Fleming, K., Johnston, P., Zwartz, D., Yokoyama, Y., Lambeck, K.Chappell, J. 1998. Refining the eustatic sea level curve since the Last Glacial Maximum using far- and intermediate-field sites. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 163, 327342.
Fricker, H.A., Scambos, T., Bindschadler, R.Padman, L. 2007. An active subglacial water system in West Antarctica mapped from space. Science, 315, 15441548.
Gleick, P.H. 1996. Water resources. In Schneider, S.H., ed. Encyclopedia of climate and weather, vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 817823.
Hall, D.K., Williams, R.S., Luthcke, S.B.Digirolamo, N.E. 2008. Greenland ice sheet surface temperature, melt and mass loss: 2000–06. Journal of Glaciology, 54, 8193.
Hanna, E., Huybrechts, P., Steffen, K., Cappelen, J., Huff, R., Shuman, C., Irvine-Fynn, T., Wise, S.Griffiths, M. 2008. Increased runoff from melt from the Greenland Ice Sheet: a response to global warming. Journal of Climate, 21, 331341.
Hansen, J.E. 2007. Scientific reticence and sea level rise. Environmental Research Letters, 2, 16.
Helsen, M.M., van den Broeke, M.R., van de Wal, R.S.W., van de Berg, W.J., van Meijgaard, E., Davis, C.H., Li, Y.H.Goodwin, I. 2008. Elevation changes in Antarctica mainly determined by accumulation variability. Science, 320, 16261629.
Holland, P.R., Jenkins, A.Holland, D.M. 2008a. The response of ice shelf basal melting to variations in ocean temperature. Journal of Climate, 21, 25582572.
Holland, D.M., Thomas, R.H., De Young, B., Ribergaard, M.H.Lyberth, B. 2008b. Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters. Nature Geoscience, 1, 659664.
Houghton, J.T., Ding, Y., Griggs, D.J., Noguer, M., van der Linden, P.J., Dai, X., Maskell, K.Johnson, C.A., eds. 2001. Climate change 2001: the scientific basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 892 pp.
Howat, I.M., Joughin, I.Scambos, T.A. 2007. Rapid changes in ice discharge from Greenland outlet glaciers. Science, 315, 1559.
Howat, I.M., Smith, B.E., Joughin, I.Scambos, T.A. 2008. Rates of southeast Greenland ice volume loss from combined ICESat and ASTER observations. Geophysical Research Letters, 35, 10.1029/2008GL034496.
Hughes, T. 1973. Is the West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrating? Journal of Geophysical Research, 78, 78847910.
Humbert, A.Braun, M. 2008. The Wilkins Ice Shelf - break-up along failure zones. Journal of Glaciology, 54, 943944.
IPCC. 2007. Summary for policymakers. In Solomon, S., Qin, D., Manning, M., Chen, Z., Marquis, M., Averyt, K.B., Tignor, M.&Miller, H.L., eds. Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 118.
Jacka, T.H. & the ISMASS Committee. 2004. Recommendations for the collection and synthesis of Antarctic Ice Sheet mass balance data. Global and Planetary Change, 42, 115.
Jezek, K.C. 2008. The RADARSAT-1 Antarctic Mapping Project. BPRC Report No 22. Columbus, OH: Byrd Polar Research Center, The Ohio State University, 64 pp.
Joughin, I., Abdalati, W.Fahnestock, M. 2004. Large fluctuations in speed on Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier. Nature, 432, 608610.
Joughin, I., Rignot, E., Rosanova, C.E., Lucchitta, B.K.Bohlander, J. 2003. Timing of recent accelerations of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters, 30, 10.1029/2003GL017609.
Joughin, I., Das, S.B., King, M.A., Smith, B.E., Howat, I.M.Moon, T. 2008. Seasonal speedup along the western flank of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Science, 320, 781783.
Kamb, B. 2001. The lubricating basal zone of the West Antarctic ice streams. Antarctic Research Series, 77, 157199.
Krabill, W., Abdalati, W., Frederick, E., Manizade, S., Martin, C., Sonntag, J., Swift, R., Thomas, R., Wright, W.Yungel, J. 2000. Greenland Ice Sheet: high-elevation balance and peripheral thinning. Science, 289, 428430.
Krabill, W., Hanna, E., Huybrechts, P., Abdalati, W., Cappelen, J., Csatho, B., Frederick, E., Manizade, S., Martin, C., Sonntag, J., Swift, R., Thomas, R.Yungel, J. 2004. Greenland Ice Sheet: increased coastal thinning. Geophysical Research Letters, 31, L24402.
Lemke, P., Ren, J., Alley, R.B., Allison, I., Carrasco, J., Flato, G., Fujii, Y., Kaser, G., Mote, P., Thomas, R.H.Zhang, T. 2007. Observations: changes in snow, ice and frozen ground. In Solomon, S., Qin, D., Manning, M., Chen, Z., Marquis, M., Averyt, K.B., Tignor, M.&Miller, H.L., eds. Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 339383.
Lhomme, N., Clarke, G.K.C.Marshall, S.J. 2005. Tracer transport in the Greenland Ice Sheet - constraints on ice cores and glacial history. Quaternary Science Reviews, 24, 173194.
Luthcke, S.B., Zwally, H.J., Abdalati, W., Rowlands, D.D., Ray, R.D., Nerem, R.S., Lemoine, F.G., McCarthy, J.J.Chinn, D.S. 2006. Recent Greenland ice mass loss by drainage system from satellite gravity observations. Science, 314, 1286.
Lythe, M., Vaughan, D.G. & the BEDMAP Consortium. 2001. BEDMAP: a new ice thickness and subglacial topographic model of Antarctica. Journal of Geophysical Research, 106, 1133511351.
Meier, M.F., Dyurgerov, M.B., Rick, U.K., O’Neel, S., Pfeffer, W.T., Anderson, R.S., Anderson, S.P.Glazovsky, A.F. 2007. Glaciers dominate eustatic sea level rise in the 21st century. Science, 317, 10641067.
Mercer, J. 1978. West Antarctic ice sheet and CO2 greenhouse effect: a threat of disaster. Nature, 271, 321325.
Meredith, M.P.King, J.C. 2005. Rapid climate change in the ocean west of the Antarctic Peninsula during the second half of the 20th century. Geophysical Research Letters, 32, 10.1029/2005GL024042.
Monaghan, A.J. & 15 others. 2006. Insignificant change in Antarctic snowfall since the International Geophysical Year. Science, 313, 827831.
Nakicenovic, N.Swart, R., eds. 2000. Special Report on Emissions Scenarios: A Special Report of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 570 pp.
Nicholls, R.J., Wong, P.P., Burkett, V.R., Codignotto, J.O., Hay, J.E., McLean, R.F., Ragoonaden, S.Woodroffe, C.D. 2007. Coastal systems and low-lying areas. In McCarthy, J.J., Canziani, O.F., Leary, N.A., Dokken, D.J.&White, K.S.,eds. 2001. Climate change 2001: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 315356.
Nick, F.M., Vieli, A., Howat, I.M.Joughin, I. 2009. Large-scale changes in Greenland outlet glacier dynamics triggered at the terminus. Nature Geoscience, 2, 110114.
Oerlemans, J., Dahl-Jensen, D.Masson-Delmotte, V. 2006. Ice sheets and sea level. Nature, 313, 10431044.
Otto-Bliesner, B.L., Marsall, S.J., Overpeck, J.T., Miller, G.H., Hu, A. & CAPE Last Interglacial Project members. 2006. Simulating Arctic climate warmth and icefield retreat in the last interglaciation. Science, 311, 17511753.
Overpeck, J.T., Otto-Bliesner, B.L., Miller, G.H., Muhs, D.R., Alley, R.B.Kiehl, J.T. 2006. Paleoclimatic evidence for future ice-sheet instability and rapid sea level rise. Science, 311, 17471750.
Parizek, B.R.Alley, R.B. 2004. Implications of increased Greenland surface melt under global-warming scenarios: ice-sheet simulations. Quaternary Science Reviews, 23, 10131027.
Payne, A.J., Holland, P.R., Shepherd, A.P., Rutt, I.C., Jenkins, A.Joughin, I. 2007. Numerical modeling of ocean-ice interactions under Pine Island Bay’s ice shelf. Journal of Geophysical Research, 112, 10.1029/2006JC003733.
Pfeffer, W.T., Harper, J.T.O’Neel, S. 2008. Kinematic constraints on glacier contributions to 21st-century sea level rise. Science, 321, 13401343.
Price, S.F., Payne, A.J., Catania, G.A.Neumann, T.A. 2008. Seasonal acceleration of inland ice via longitudinal coupling to marginal ice. Journal of Glaciology, 54, 213219.
Pritchard, H.D.Vaughan, D.G. 2007. Widespread acceleration of tidewater glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula. Journal of Geophysical Research, 112, 10.1029/2006JF000597.
Ramillien, G., Lombard, A., Cazenave, A., Ivins, E.R., Llubes, M., Remy, F.Biancale, R. 2006. Interannual variations of the mass balance of the Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets from GRACE. Global and Planetary Change, 53, 198208.
Rahmstorf, S. 2007. A semi-empirical approach to projecting future sea level rise. Science, 315, 368.
Rahmstorf, S., Cazenave, A., Church, J.A., Hansen, J.E., Keeling, R.F., Parker, D.E.Somerville, R.C.J. 2007. Recent climate observations compared to projections. Science, 316, 709.
Rignot, E. 2006. Changes in ice dynamics and mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, A364, 16371655.
Rignot, E.Jacobs, S. 2002. Rapid bottom melting widespread near Antarctic Ice Sheet grounding lines. Science, 296, 20202023.
Rignot, E.Kanagaratnam, P. 2006. Changes in the velocity structure of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Science, 311, 986990.
Rignot, E.Thomas, R.H. 2002. Mass balance of polar ice sheets. Science, 297, 15021506.
Rignot, E., Box, J.E., Burgess, E.Hanna, E. 2008a. Mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet from 1958 to 2007. Geophysical Research Letters, 35, 10.1029/2008GL035417.
Rignot, E., Casassa, G., Gogineni, P., Krabill, W., Rivera, A.Thomas, R. 2004. Accelerated ice discharge from the Antarctic Peninsula following the collapse of Larsen B ice shelf. Geophysical Research Letters, 31, 10.1029/2004GL020697.
Rignot, E., Bamber, J., van den Broeke, M., Davis, C., Li, Y., van de Berg, W.van Meijgaard, E. 2008b. Recent Antarctic ice mass loss from radar interferometry and regional climate modelling. Nature Geoscience, 1, 106110.
Rohling, E.J., Grant, K., Hemleben, C.H., Siddall, M., Hoogakker, B.A.A., Bolshaw, M.Kucera, M. 2008. High rates of sea level rise during the last interglacial period. Nature Geoscience, 1, 3842.
Scambos, T., Bohlander, J.A., Shuman, C.A.Skvarca, P. 2004. Glacier acceleration and thinning after ice shelf collapse in the Larsen B embayment, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters, 31, 10.1029/2004GL020670.
Scambos, T., Hulbe, C.Fahnestock, M. 2003. Climate-induced ice shelf disintegration in the Antarctic Peninsula. Antarctic Research Series, 79, 7992.
Scambos, T., Fricker, H.A., Liu, C.-C., Bohlander, J.A., Fastook, J., Sargent, A., Massom, R.Wu, A.-M. 2009. Ice shelf disintegration by plate bending and hydro-fracture: satellite observations and model results of the 2008 Wilkins Ice Shelf break-ups, accepted to. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 280, 5160.
Shepherd, A., Wingham, D.Rignot, E. 2004. Warm ocean is eroding West Antarctic ice sheet. Geophysical Research Letters, 31, 14.
Shepherd, A.Wingham, D. 2007. Recent sea level contributions of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Science, 315, 15291532.
Siegert, M.J.Bamber, J.L. 2000. Subglacial water at the heads of Antarctic ice stream tributaries. Journal of Glaciology, 46, 702703.
Siegert, M.J., Carter, S., Tabacco, I., Popov, S.Blankenship, D. 2005. A revised inventory of Antarctic subglacial lakes. Antarctic Science, 17, 453460.
Solomon, S., Qin, D., Manning, M., Chen, Z., Marquis, M., Averyt, K.B., Tignor, M.Miller, H.L. eds. Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 996 pp.
Stearns, L.A., Smith, B.E.Hamilton, G.S. 2008. Increased flow speed on a large East Antarctic outlet glacier caused by subglacial floods. Nature Geoscience, 1, 827831.
Thomas, R., Davis, C., Frederick, E., Krabill, W., Li, Y., Manizade, S.Martin, C. 2008. A comparison of Greenland ice-sheet volume changes derived from altimetry measurements. Journal of Glaciology, 54, 203212.
Thomas, R., Frederick, E., Krabill, W., Manizade, S.Martin, C. 2006. Progressive increase in ice loss from Greenland. Geophysical Research Letters, 33, 10.1029/2006GL026075.
Thomas, R.H. 1977. Calving bay dynamics and ice sheet retreat up the St. Lawrence valley system. Gèographie Physique et Quaternaire, 31, 347356.
Thomas, R.H. 1979. The dynamics of marine ice sheets. Journal of Glaciology, 24, 167177.
Thomas, R.H. 2004. Force-perturbation analysis of recent thinning and acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbrae, Greenland. Journal of Glaciology, 50, 5766.
Thomas, R.H., Abdalati, W., Frederick, E., Krabill, W., Manizade, S.Steffen, K. 2003. Investigation of surface melting and dynamic thinning on Jakobshavn Isbrae, Greenland. Journal of Glaciology, 49, 231239.
Truffer, M.Fahnestock, M. 2007. Rethinking ice sheet timescales. Science, 315, 15081510.
van de Berg, W.J., van den Broeke, M.R., Reijmer, C.H.van Meijgaard, E. 2006. Reassessment of the Antarctic surface mass balance using calibrated output of a regional atmospheric climate model. Journal of Geophysical Research, 111, 10.1029/2005JD006495.
Vaughan, D.Arthern, R. 2007. Why is it so hard to predict the future of the ice sheets? Science, 315, 15031504.
Vaughan, D.G., Bamber, J.L., Giovinetto, M., Russell, J.Cooper, A.P.R. 1999. Reassessment of net surface mass balance in Antarctica. Journal of Climate, 12, 933946.
Velicogna, I.Wahr, J. 2005. Greenland mass balance from GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters, 32, 10.1029/2005GL023955.
Velicogna, I.Wahr, J. 2006a. Acceleration of Greenland ice mass loss in spring 2004. Nature, 443, 329331.
Velicogna, I.Wahr, J. 2006b. Measurements of time variable gravity show mass loss in Antarctica. Science, 311, 17541756.
Weertman, J. 1976. Glaciology’s grand unsolved problem. Nature, 260, 284286.
Williams, M.J.M., Warner, R.Budd, W.F. 2002. Sensitivity of the Amery Ice Shelf, Antarctica, to changes in the climate of the Southern Ocean. Journal of Climate, 15, 27402757.
Wingham, D.J., Siegert, M.J., Shepherd, A.P.Muir, A.S. 2006a. Rapid discharge connects Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature, 440, 10331036.
Wingham, D., Shepherd, A., Muir, A.Marshall, G. 2006b. Mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A364, 16271635.
Wouters, B., Chambers, D.Schrama, E.J.O. 2008. GRACE observes small-scale mass loss in Greenland. Geophysical Research Letters, 35, 10.1029/2008GL034816.
Zwally, H.J., Abdalati, W., Herring, T., Larson, K., Saba, J.Steffen, K. 2002. Surface melt-induced acceleration of Greenland ice-sheet flow. Science, 297, 218222.
Zwally, H.J., Giovinetto, M.B., Li, J., Cornejo, H.G., Beckley, M.A., Brenner, A.C., Saba, J.L.Yi, D. 2005. Mass changes of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and shelves and contributions to sea level rise: 1992–2002. Journal of Glaciology, 51, 509527.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Antarctic Science
  • ISSN: 0954-1020
  • EISSN: 1365-2079
  • URL: /core/journals/antarctic-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed