Antarctic Ice Melting: Tamsin Edwards Responds to Richard Alley

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In November, I wrote a post describing research on Antarctic glacial melting by Catherine Ritz, Tamsin Edwards, Gaël Durand, Antony Payne, Vincent Peyaud, and Richard Hindmarsh (“Potential sea-level rise from Antarctic ice-sheet instability constrained by observations”). I had asked one of the authors, Tamsin Edwards, to address a few questions about the study. I also asked glacier expert Richard Alley a few questions. Alley got back to me right away, but Edwards was unable to do so, so I wrote up Alley’s commentary here, with the intention of covering Edwards’ response at a later time. Over the weekend, Edwards responded to my questions as well as many of Alley’s comments, and thus, this post.

In my original post, I wrote,

The study asked how much Antarctic ice sheets might contribute to global sea level by 2100 and 2200 AD. The results contradicted some earlier estimates which are on the high end, but conformed very closely to the current IPCC estimate, raising that number by a negligible amount.

To this, Edwards responds,

Our likely range (central two thirds of the distribution: 4–21 cm by 2100) is a few centimetres higher than the IPCC’s estimates of the likely range for A1B. Our extremely unlikely threshold (1 in 20 chance of exceeding 30 cm) is lower than some previous estimates of the upper bound and is also at the low end of the IPCC’s estimate of “not more than several tenths of a metre”.

I asked Edwards if it was correct to cay that the study’s results conform to expectations based on the prior summary of research from the IPCC (with a minor adjustment), but that the results also contradict some earlier higher-end estimates of Antarctic contribution to sea level rise. Her response was that it would be correct “…to conclude that our results do not contradict estimates of large potential sea level rise from instability in the long-term. Palaeodata provide information on millennial timescales about how much ice is potentially unstable, while our study focuses on how quickly that ice can be lost over the next 200 years. For example, we say, “These constraints are not absolute bounds—greater deglaciation has occurred in the past over longer time scales—but appear to limit the amount of ice that can be lost in two centuries.”

I also asked about the interplay between ice melting vs. falling off (as ice bergs, etc.) into the sea. She told me that, “this can only be evaluated with a process-based model, of course, so this is one of the strengths of our work over previous papers that extrapolated from past observations (and therefore could not account for this). Our results are also consistent with high resolution models that represent these processes in more detail.”

In my previous post I quoted Richard Alley as noting that not all of these non-melting mechanisms were accounted for. Alley had told me,

…the model does not allow loss of any ice shelves, does not allow grounding-line retreat from calving of icebergs following ice-shelf loss, and does not allow faster retreat from breakage of cliffs higher than those observed today, especially if aided by meltwater wedging in crevasses. The model restricts grounding-line retreat to the rate given by thinning of ice during viscous flow of an unbuttressed but still-present ice shelf, with a specified upper limit enforced on the rate of that retreat.

Edwards responded,

Fundamentally our study aims to represent the aggregate effects of multiple mechanisms, not to simulate each of the individual mechanisms themselves. We then use a wide range of possible representations to sample the uncertainties.

For example, regions predicted (by other studies) to be vulnerable to ice shelf collapse are given a “MISI onset” date, after which the grounding line is forced to retreat. This means the actual ice shelves in the model are, essentially, irrelevant: removing them has little effect because it is “over-ridden” by the forced retreat. The same applies to iceberg calving – we represent its effects in moving the grounding line.

Alley had said, “the model also does not allow retreat up a sloping bed under forcing.” To which, Edwards replied, “We do allow retreat along regions of up-sloping bed. I’m not sure how long a distance Richard would think was sufficient. Also, our aim was to estimate sea level rise due to MISI (a hypothesis specifically about down-sloping beds).”

Alley also noted that the model used in the study had an enforced upper limit that would not allow a very rapid retreat. To this, Edwards provided this response:

We used grounding line retreat rates of up to 3 km per year everywhere in Antarctica and tested rates up to 5 km per year – much higher than observed in the Amundsen Sea Embayment. Our projected ice losses were somewhat restricted by the limit on unbuttressed thinning (and also, in the ensemble, by testing with observations). When we turned this limit off in two of the ensemble members with the highest sea level rise, the results were only 15 cm higher at 2100; when we turned off the observational testing, we predicted the chance of exceeding half a metre increased to only 2%.

Edwards notes that cliff failure may produce higher rates of ice loss, and

by hacking ice off even faster and without the theoretical and observational constraints we used. But it was described by the authors – Dave Pollard, Rob DeConto and Richard himself – as “somewhat speculative”. There are no observations that confirm or quantify it, so we don’t think there is yet sufficient evidence to override the information we do know. It’s also not included in state-of-the-art models (with which, as I said, our results are consistent), such as the high resolution BISICLES: to my knowledge people do not see this as a limitation.

Edwards pointed out to me that the use the term “implausible,” meaning unlikely, but not impossible, and that unexpected processes may at some point emerge.

She notes,

We look forward to further papers that either confirm our results or else provide strong evidence that faster ice losses are likely over the next two centuries: for example, moving cliff failure from “somewhat speculative” into “current understanding” and estimating the probability of such an “ice swan” occurring over substantial regions on this time scale.

On a finer point of detail, Edwards took the opportunity to clarify what might seem a fine point, but one that is very important, in the research. She notes that the Guardian writeup noted that the study involved 3000 slightly different versions of the model. However, the total range of the variables were wide, but with individual similar models being only a little different from each other.

I’m not entirely sure how to interpret these apparent differences. I strongly suspect, as I wrote here, that a full understanding of the mechanisms of non-melting deterioration of ice sheets will result in higher rates of contribution to sea level rise (which is probably the main variable of concern here). And, I think Alley agrees with this. But Edwards is making the case that these factors have essentially been covered in the reported results, though allowing for the possibility that there are processes that may surprise us. I used the analogy (to which Edwards refers) of an ice sculpture swan falling apart. We can hope that the swan is understood, and that future melting of major ice sheets do not turn out to be a black swan rather than a mere ice swan.

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15 thoughts on “Antarctic Ice Melting: Tamsin Edwards Responds to Richard Alley

  1. Greg

    Thanks for posting this up – and to Tamsin and colleagues for the extended discussion.

    One thing that troubles me about what we don’t know are the indications of stepwise and rapid centennial-scale SLR that seem to have occurred during the Eemian (Rohling et al. 2008; Blanchon et al. 2009).

    So my views are in line with yours (and perhaps Prof. Alley’s too). Much as I dislike waving at uncertainty in lieu of evidence-backed argument, I am uneasy about what surprises the next two centuries might hold for us.

  2. Call it an argument from incredulity if you will, but based on BAU emissions for the foreseeable future, and knowing that the Greenland and western Antarctic ice sheets are already melting at rates which could not be imagined even a decade ago… the prospect of SLR of only 21cm by 2100 is just laughable.

    As Richard Alley says in so many words, there are tipping points. Once they are passed, there is no going back.

  3. COP21 and developments that are already happening in the energy sector will probably change the trajectory of BAU emissions. My fears are based on the destabilization we’ve already seen, the current rates of acceleration, and our commitment to a 0.5-06°C increase in warming. Estimates of ECS seem to be going up. Additional emissions will cause additional warming. Every new report seems to indicate new reasons to be concerned.

  4. @metzomagic, sorry if I wasn’t clear – the 21cm was *only* from Antarctic instability, not from all sources of sea level rise.

    So putting it into the global context: the IPCC estimated there is a 2 in 3 chance that total sea level rise in 2100 for the A1B scenario will be between 42 and 80 cm. Our results would bump that up by a few centimetres.


  5. Tamsin #6:

    You were very clear. It is very clear that you are only talking about the effect from Antarctic instability from your piece.

  6. Also, 2100 is just around the corner, geologically speaking. If the Eemian based estimate is correct, and other paleo data, there should be several meters of sea level rise associated with CO2 concentrations in a range that even less than BAU emissions will eventually cause.

    However, looking at all the paleodata together, it looks like around 500ppm there is a fairly high amount of variation from instance to instance.

    Still, a multi-meter ultimate rise in sea level may be inevitable given current CO2ppm plus unavoidable with maximum effort to limit emissions, plus the actual extra CO2 because we will not attain maximum effort.

    This leaves two questions open to me. 1) How long will it take? A century here or a century there is lost in the paleorecord; and 2) is it possible that the high range of variation in sea level response to 500 +/- CO2 and the relatively high uncertainties of polar ice sheet collapse scenarios one and the same thing?

  7. 2) is it possible that the high range of variation in sea level response to 500 +/- CO2 and the relatively high uncertainties of polar ice sheet collapse scenarios one and the same thing?

    It certainly makes you wonder. From Greenbaum et al. (2015):

    Totten Glacier, the primary outlet of the Aurora Subglacial Basin, has the largest thinning rate in East Antarctica. Thinning may be driven by enhanced basal melting due to ocean processes, modulated by polynya activity. Warm modified Circumpolar Deep Water, which has been linked to glacier retreat in West Antarctica, has been observed in summer and winter on the nearby continental shelf beneath 400 to 500 m of cool Antarctic Surface Water. Here we derive the bathymetry of the sea floor in the region from gravity and magnetics data as well as ice-thickness measurements. We identify entrances to the ice-shelf cavity below depths of 400 to 500 m that could allow intrusions of warm water if the vertical structure of inflow is similar to nearby observations. Radar sounding reveals a previously unknown inland trough that connects the main ice-shelf cavity to the ocean. If thinning trends continue, a larger water body over the trough could potentially allow more warm water into the cavity, which may, eventually, lead to destabilization of the low-lying region between Totten Glacier and the similarly deep glacier flowing into the Reynolds Trough. We estimate that at least 3.5m of eustatic sea level potential drains through Totten Glacier, so coastal processes in this area could have global consequences.

  8. [cont]

    And this, especially, gives pause for thought about the implications of a century or so of SLR – Mengel & Levermann (2014):

    Changes in ice discharge from Antarctica constitute the largest uncertainty in future sea-level projections, mainly because of the unknown response of its marine basins. Most of West Antarctica’s marine ice sheet lies on an inland-sloping bed and is thereby prone to a marine ice sheet instability. A similar topographic configuration is found in large parts of East Antarctica, which holds marine ice equivalent to 19 m of global sea-level rise, that is, more than five times that of West Antarctica. Within East Antarctica, the Wilkes Basin holds the largest volume of marine ice that is fully connected by subglacial troughs. This ice body was significantly reduced during the Pliocene epoch. Strong melting underneath adjacent ice shelves with similar bathymetry indicates the ice sheet’s sensitivity to climatic perturbations. The stability of the Wilkes marine ice sheet has not been the subject of any comprehensive assessment of future sea level. Using recently improved topographic data in combination with ice-dynamic simulations, we show here that the removal of a specific coastal ice volume equivalent to less than 80 mm of global sea-level rise at the margin of the Wilkes Basin destabilizes the regional ice flow and leads to a self-sustained discharge of the entire basin and a global sea-level rise of 3–4 m. Our results are robust with respect to variation in ice parameters, forcing details and model resolution as well as increased surface mass balance, indicating that East Antarctica may become a large contributor to future sea-level rise on timescales beyond a century.

  9. “Also, 2100 is just around the corner, geologically speaking. ”

    We just saw the rate of SLR spike to 1 centimeter per year in 2015:


    Is it just El Nino and we can expect a return to the mean, or are now just able to descry a true exponential acceleration? We have seen the rate of SLR go from 0.8mm to 1.9mm to 3.1mm to above 4mm, and now we see 10mm per year.

    In the next few years, we will see an ice-free summer Arctic. It’s acceleration turtles all the way down.

  10. ROSS
    As the red flags continue to pop up, Richard Alley, very quickly, there is still uncertainty about the rate of melt. What can you leave listeners with about the timetable, since scientists are still trying to get their arms around that data?

    Yeah, warming melts ice. We face sea level rise in a warming world. The numbers that you often see for what is most likely are on the optimistic end of what is possible. So the less you trust us the more worried you might be.

    Chris Mooney energy and environment reporter, Washington Post
    Richard Alley professor of geoscience, Penn State University
    Eric Rignot professor of Earth system science, University of California, Irvine; principal scientist for the Radar Science and Engineering Section at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
    Dr. Ben Strauss Chief Operating Officer and Director of the Program on Sea Level Rise, Climate Central.

  11. @Tamsin Edwards #6

    Yeah, don’t know how I missed that your paper was only examining Antarctic instability. Thanks for the response. I see now that your results are broadly aligned with IPCC projections.

    Sorry for the delay in responding, but I was busy elsewhere. I don’t do drive-bys.

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