Antarctica is pretty much covered with glaciers. Glaciers are dynamic entities that, unless they are in full melt, tend to grow near their thickest parts (that’s why those are the thickest parts) and mush outwards towards the edges, where the liminal areas either melt (usually seasonally) in situ or drop off into the sea.
Antarctic’s glaciers are surrounded by a number of floating ice shelves. The ice shelves are really the distal reaches of the moving glaciers floating over the ocean. This is one of the places, probably the place at present, where melting accelerated by human caused greenhouse gas pollution occurs. The ice shelves are fixed in place along their margins (they typically cover linear fjord like valleys) and at a grounding point underneath the shelf some distance form the ice margin but under sea level.
The collapse or disintegration of an ice shelf is thought to lead to the more rapid movement of the corresponding glacial mass towards the sea, and increased melting. This is the big problem right now with estimating the rate of glacial melting in the Antarctic. This is not a steady and regular process, as rapid disintegration of an ice shelf is possible. Most likely, Antarctic glacial melting over the coming decades will involve occasional catastrophic of an ice shelf followed by more rapid glacial melting at that point.
Unfortunately, the ice shelves are generally becoming more vulnerable to this sort of process, a new study just out in Science shows. From the abstract:
The floating ice shelves surrounding the Antarctic Ice Sheet restrain the grounded ice-sheet flow. Thinning of an ice shelf reduces this effect, leading to an increase in ice discharge to the ocean. Using eighteen years of continuous satellite radar altimeter observations we have computed decadal-scale changes in ice-shelf thickness around the Antarctic continent. Overall, average ice-shelf volume change accelerated from negligible loss at 25 ± 64 km3 per year for 1994-2003 to rapid loss of 310 ± 74 km3 per year for 2003-2012. West Antarctic losses increased by 70% in the last decade, and earlier volume gain by East Antarctic ice shelves ceased. In the Amundsen and Bellingshausen regions, some ice shelves have lost up to 18% of their thickness in less than two decades.
This is one of many reasons that even the most extreme of the IPCC estimates of ice loss (generally) and its contribution to sea level rise have to be seen as a lower limit. This is a substantial change, and it is very recent. It isn’t just that the ice sheets have gotten thinner, but also, that the rate of melting at these margins is increasing.
Caption to figure: Fig. 1 Eighteen years of change in thickness and volume of Antarctic ice shelves.
Rates of thickness change (m/decade) are color-coded from -25 (thinning) to +10 (thickening). Circles represent percentage of thickness lost (red) or gained (blue) in 18 years. Only significant values at the 95% confidence level are plotted (see Table S1). Lower left corner shows time series and polynomial fit of average volume change (km3) from 1994 to 2012 for the West (in red) and East (in blue) Antarctic ice shelves. Black curve is polynomial fit for All Antarctic ice shelves. We divided Antarctica into eight regions (Fig. 3), which are labeled and delimited by line segments in black. Ice-shelf perimeters are shown as a thin black line. The central circle demarcates the area not surveyed by the satellites (south of 81.5°S). Original data were interpolated for mapping purposes (see Table S1 for percentage area surveyed of each ice shelf). Background is the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (LIMA).