PerspectiveClimate Change

Modeling Ice-Sheet Flow

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Science  04 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6081, pp. 551-552
DOI: 10.1126/science.1220530

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The great Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are the “wild cards” in projections of sea-level change (1). Early models of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system treated the ice sheets as static white mountains. Observations since then have shown that ice sheets can change quickly (2): In some places, the tides strongly modulate coastal ice flow; in others, warming-induced ice-shelf loss has caused the flow speed of the subsequently unbuttressed inland ice to increase almost 10-fold within a few weeks (3, 4). A new generation of full-stress ice-sheet models incorporates the physics needed to reproduce such processes (see the figure) (57). Including full stresses does improve ice-flow simulations (8). Well-validated, robust projections of ice-sheet behavior under climate change nevertheless remain a challenge, as they will require an ensemble of model ice sheets coupled to the rest of the climate system.