Skip to main content Accessibility help

Firn air depletion as a precursor of Antarctic ice-shelf collapse

  • Peter Kuipers Munneke (a1), Stefan R.M. Ligtenberg (a1), Michiel R. Van Den Broeke (a1) and David G. Vaughan (a2)

Since the 1970s, the sudden, rapid collapse of 20% of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula has led to large-scale thinning and acceleration of its tributary glaciers. The leading hypothesis for the collapse of most of these ice shelves is the process of hydrofracturing, whereby a water-filled crevasse is opened by the hydrostatic pressure acting at the crevasse tip. This process has been linked to observed atmospheric warming through the increased supply of meltwater. Importantly, the low-density firn layer near the ice-shelf surface, providing a porous medium in which meltwater can percolate and refreeze, has to be filled in with refrozen meltwater first, before hydrofracturing can occur at all. Here we build upon this notion of firn air depletion as a precursor of ice-shelf collapse, by using a firn model to show that pore space was depleted in the firn layer on former ice shelves, which enabled their collapse due to hydrofracturing. Two climate scenario runs with the same model indicate that during the 21st century most Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves, and some minor ice shelves elsewhere, are more likely to become susceptible to collapse following firn air depletion. If warming continues into the 22nd century, similar depletion will become widespread on ice shelves around East Antarctica. Our model further suggests that a projected increase in snowfall will protect the Ross and Filchner–Ronne Ice Shelves from hydrofracturing in the coming two centuries.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Firn air depletion as a precursor of Antarctic ice-shelf collapse
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Firn air depletion as a precursor of Antarctic ice-shelf collapse
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Firn air depletion as a precursor of Antarctic ice-shelf collapse
      Available formats
Copyright © International Glaciological Society 2014 This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution license. (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Hide All
Abram, NJ and 8 others (2013) Acceleration of snow melt in an Antarctic Peninsula ice core during the twentieth century. Nature Geosci., 6(4), 404411 (doi: 10.1038/ngeo1787)
Arthern, RJ, Vaughan, DG, Rankin, AM, Mulvaney, R and Thomas, ER (2010) In situ measurements of Antarctic snow compaction compared with predictions of models. J. Geophys. Res., 115(F3), F03011 (doi: 10.1029/2009JF001306)
Barrand, NE and 6 others (2013) Trends in Antarctic Peninsula surface melting conditions from observations and regional climate modeling. J. Geophys. Res., 118(F1), 315330 (doi:10.1029/2012JF002559)
Berthier, E, Scambos, TA and Shuman, CA (2012) Mass loss of Larsen B tributary glaciers (Antarctic Peninsula) unabated since 2002. Geophys. Res. Lett., 39(13), L13501 (doi: 10.1029/2012GL051755)
Coléou, C, Xu, K, Lesaffre, B and Brzoska, JB (1999) Capillary rise in snow. Hydrol. Process., 13(12–13), 17211732
Connolley, WM and Bracegirdle, TJ (2007) An Antarctic assessment of IPCC AR4 coupled models. Geophys. Res. Lett., 34(22), L22505 (doi: 10.1029/2007GL031648)
Cook, AJ and Vaughan, DG (2010) Overview of areal changes of the ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula over the past 50 years. Cryosphere, 4(1), 7798 (doi: 10.5194/tc-4–77–2010)
De Angelis, H and Skvarca, P (2003) Glacier surge after ice shelf collapse. Science, 299(5612), 15601562 (doi: 10.1126/science.1077987)
Dupont, TK and Alley, RB (2005) Assessment of the importance of ice-shelf buttressing to ice-sheet flow. Geophys. Res. Lett., 32(4), L04503 (doi: 10.1029/2004GL022024)
Ettema, J and 6 others (2009) Higher surface mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet revealed by high-resolution climate modelling. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36(12), L12501 (doi: 10.1029/2009GL038110)
Fretwell, P and 59 others (2013) Bedmap2: improved ice bed, surface and thickness datasets for Antarctica. Cryosphere, 7(1), 375393 (doi: 10.5194/tc-7–375–2013)
Fyke, JG, Carter, J and Mackintosh, A (2010) Surface melting over ice shelves and ice sheets as assessed from modeled surface air temperatures. J. Climate, 23(7), 19291936 (doi: 10.1175/2009JCLI3122.1)
Hellmer, H, Kauker, F, Timmermann, R, Determann, J and Rae, J (2012) Twenty-first-century warming of a large Antarctic ice-shelf cavity by a redirected coastal current. Nature, 485(7397), 225228 (doi: 10.1038/nature11064)
Holland, PR and 6 others (2011) The air content of Larsen Ice Shelf. Geophys. Res. Lett., 38(10), L10503 (doi: 10.1029/2011GL047245)
Kuipers Munneke, P, Van den Broeke, MR, Lenaerts, JTM, Flanner, MG, Gardner, AS and Van de Berg, WJ (2011a) A new albedo parameterization for use in climate models over the Antarctic ice sheet. J. Geophys. Res., 116(D5), D05114 (doi: 10.1029/2010JD015113)
Kuipers Munneke, P, Picard, G, Van den Broeke, MR, Lenaerts, JTM and Van Meijgaard, E (2011b) Insignificant change in Antarctic snowmelt volume since 1979. Geophys. Res. Lett., 39(1), L01501 (doi: 10.1029/2011GL050207)
Kuipers Munneke, P, Van den Broeke, MR, King, JC, Gray, T and Reijmer, CH (2012) Near-surface climate and surface energy budget of Larsen C ice shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Cryosphere, 6(2), 353363 (doi: 10.5194/tc-6–353–2012)
Lenaerts, JTM, Van den Broeke, MR, Van de Berg, WJ, Van Meijgaard, E and Kuipers Munneke, P (2012) A new, high-resolution surface mass balance map of Antarctica (1979–2010) based on regional atmospheric climate modeling. Geophys. Res. Lett., 39(4), L04501 (doi: 10.1029/2011GL050713)
Ligtenberg, SRM, Helsen, MM and Van den Broeke, MR (2011) An improved semi-empirical model for the densification of Antarctic firn. Cryosphere, 5(4), 809819 (doi: 10.5194/tc-5–809–2011)
Ligtenberg, SRM, Van de Berg, WJ, Van den Broeke, MR, Rae, JGL and Van Meijgaard, E (2013) Future surface mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet and its influence on sea level change, simulated by a regional atmospheric climate model. Climate Dyn., 41(3–4), 867884 (doi: 10.1007/s00382–013–1749–1)
MacAyeal, DR and Sergienko, OV (2013) The flexural dynamics of melting ice shelves. Ann. Glaciol., 54(63 Pt 1), 110 (doi: 10.3189/2013AoG63A256)
Monaghan, AJ and 15 others (2006) Insignificant change in Antarctic snowfall since the International Geophysical Year. Science, 313(5788), 827831 (doi: 10.1126/science.1128243)
Monaghan, AJ, Bromwich, DH, Chapman, W and Comiso, JC (2008) Recent variability and trends of Antarctic near-surface temperature. J. Geophys. Res., 113(D4), D04105 (doi: 10.1029/2007JD009094)
Morris, EM and Vaughan, DG (2003) Spatial and temporal variation of surface temperature on the Antarctic peninsula and the limit of viability of ice shelves. In Domack, E, Leventer, A, Burnett, A, Bindschadler, RA, Convey, P and Kirby, M eds. Antarctic Peninsula climate variability – historical and paleo environmental perspectives. (Antarctic Research Series 79) American Geophysical Union, Washington, DC, 6168
NCAR Command Language (Version 6.1.3) (2013) UCAR/NCAR/CISL/VETS, Boulder, CO.
Nicholls, KW, Makinson, K and Venables, EJ (2012) Ocean circulation beneath Larsen C Ice Shelf, Antarctica from in situ observations. Geophys. Res. Lett., 39(19), L19608 (doi: 10.1029/2012GL053187)
Pritchard, HD, Ligtenberg, SRM, Fricker, HA, Vaughan, DG, Van den Broeke, MR and Padman, L (2012) Antarctic ice-sheet loss driven by basal melting of ice shelves. Nature, 484(7395), 502505 (doi: 10.1038/nature10968)
Rignot, E, Casassa, G, Gogineni, P, Krabill, W, Rivera, A and Thomas, R (2004) Accelerated ice discharge from the Antarctic Peninsula following the collapse of Larsen B ice shelf. Geophys. Res. Lett., 31(18), L18401 (doi: 10.1029/2004GL020697)
Rott, H, Skvarca, P and Nagler, T (1996) Rapid collapse of northern Larsen Ice Shelf, Antarctica. Science, 271(5250), 788792 (doi: 10.1126/science.271.5250.788)
Rott, H, Müller, F, Nagler, T and Floricioiu, D (2011) The imbalance of glaciers after disintegration of Larsen-B ice shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Cryosphere, 5(1), 125134 (doi: 10.5194/tc-5–125–2011)
Scambos, TA, Hulbe, C, Fahnestock, M and Bohlander, J (2000) The link between climate warming and break-up of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula. J. Glaciol., 46(154), 516530 (doi: 10.3189/172756500781833043)
Scambos, T, Hulbe, C and Fahnestock, M (2003) Climate-induced ice shelf disintegration in the Antarctic Peninsula. In Domack, EW, Burnett, A, Leventer, A, Conley, P, Kirby, M and Bindschadler, R eds. Antarctic Peninsula climate variability: a historical and paleoenvironmental perspective. (Antarctic Research Series 79) American Geophysical Union, Washington, DC, 7992
Scambos, TA, Bohlander, JA, Shuman, CA and Skvarca, P (2004) Glacier acceleration and thinning after ice shelf collapse in the Larsen B embayment, Antarctica. Geophys. Res. Lett., 31(18), L18402 (doi: 10.1029/2004GL020670)
Scambos, T and 7 others (2008) Calving and ice-shelf break-up processes investigated by proxy: Antarctic tabular iceberg evolution during northward drift. J. Glaciol., 54(187), 579591 (doi: 10.3189/002214308786570836)
Scambos, T and 7 others (2009) Ice shelf disintegration by plate bending and hydro-fracture: satellite observations and model results of the 2008 Wilkins ice shelf break-ups. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett., 280(1–4), 5160 (doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2008.12.027)
Shepherd, A and 46 others (2012) A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance. Science, 338(6111), 11831189 (doi: 10.1126/science.1228102)
Skvarca, P, Rack, W and Rott, H (1999) 34 year satellite time series to monitor characteristics, extent and dynamics of Larsen B Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula. Ann. Glaciol., 29, 255260 (doi: 10.3189/172756499781821283)
Trusel, LD, Frey, KE, Das, SB, Kuipers Munneke, P and Van den Broeke, MR (2013) Satellite-based estimates of Antarctic surface melt-water fluxes. Geophys. Res. Lett., 40(23), 61486153 (doi: 10.1002/2013GL058138)
Van den Broeke, MR, Reijmer, CH, Van As, D, Van de Wal, RSW and Oerlemans, J (2005) Seasonal cycles of Antarctic surface energy balance from automatic weather stations. Ann. Glaciol., 41, 131139 (doi: 10.3189/172756405781813168)
Vaughan, DG and Doake, CSM (1996) Recent atmospheric warming and retreat of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula. Nature, 379(6563), 328331 (doi: 10.1038/379328a0)
Vaughan, DG and 8 others (2003) Recent rapid regional climate warming on the Antarctic Peninsula. Climatic Change, 60(3), 243274
Wager, AC (1972) Flooding of the ice shelf in George VI Sound. Br. Antarct. Surv. Bull., 28, 7174
Wever, N, Fierz, C, Mitterer, C, Hirashima, H and Lehning, M (2013) Solving Richards Equation for snow improves snowpack meltwater runoff estimations. Cryos. Discuss., 7(3), 23732412 (doi: 10.5194/tcd-7–2373–2013)
Zazulie, N, Rusticucci, M and Solomon, S (2010) Changes in climate at high southern latitudes: a unique daily record at Orcadas spanning 1903–2008. J. Climate, 23(1), 189196 (doi: 10.1175/2009JCLI3074.1)
Recommend this journal

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

Journal of Glaciology
  • ISSN: 0022-1430
  • EISSN: 1727-5652
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-glaciology
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