Constraining future Antarctic ice loss with the coupled ice-ocean model PISM-FESOM

Sea-level rise constitutes one of the major impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Mean sea-level has been rising with a rate of about 3 mm/yr since the beginning of the 1990s, dominated by ocean warming and the loss of mountain glaciers. The largest future contribution is however expected from mass loss of the large ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica. The dynamic response of the Antarctic ice sheet to a warming climate is not well understood and therefore poses the largest uncertainty in future sea-level projections. In 2013 the IPCC acknowledged that a dependency of ice loss on future warming cannot be inferred due to a lack of understanding of the relevant processes and assessed a likely contribution of less than 20cm in the 21st century. New modeling results now indicate a risk of more than one meter sea level contribution from Antarctica under strong warming within the 21st century. Such contribution would dominate over other processes like thermal expansion, glacier melt and Greenland ice loss. The new projections leave sea-level impact scientists and coastal planners in a limbo as such upward-corrected projections would require massive changes in adaptation planning. Though the new projections are supported by the sensitivity of several meters per degree of warming inferred from records of past sea levels, the timescale of the contribution is difficult to infer from these records. Reconstructed sea-level histories suggest that fast changes occurred in the past in terms of “melt-water pulses” with several meters of sea-level rise within a few hundred years. High rates of ice loss from Antarctica need to be sustained by an ocean circulation that is capable of providing the heat to melt the ice or transport icebergs towards warmer waters where they melt. Without thorough constraints on the ocean heat flux through energy conservation in the ice-ocean system, very high rates of ice loss remain therefore debatable. Only a coupled ice-ocean model will make it possible to provide such constraints and therewith reduce the uncertainty in future Antarctic ice loss. While the understanding of ocean and ice-sheet physics individually has matured, their interplay at the ice-ocean interface is still insufficiently understood. We therefore here propose to develop such a coupled model from well-established stand-alone models for the ice sheet and for the ocean.


Aug 01, 2017 until Apr 30, 2020

Funding Agency

DFG - Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

Funding Call

Schwerpunktprogramm 1158 Bereich Infrastruktur - Antarktisforschung mit vergleichenden Untersuchungen in arktischen Eisgebieten


Ricarda Winkelmann