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Netherlands Polar Data Center

Project - Viability of Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves under extreme climate change

Summary

Since the 1970's, ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula (AP) have retreated or even collapsed. The retreat coincides with a multi-decade period of strong atmospheric warming in this region. After the ice shelves collapsed, their tributary glaciers accelerated significantly, contributing to the observed acceleration in mass loss in the AP and subsequent sea level rise. Understanding the processes leading to ice shelf retreat and collapse is thus crucial in order to better understand the present and future contribution of the Antarctic ice sheet to sea level rise.
Ice shelf mass loss is linked to oceanographic and atmospheric forcing. Increased basal melting by warm ocean currents results in thinning of the ice shelf, while increased surface melting due to increased atmospheric temperatures results in meltwater ponding and possible catastrophic collapse through hydrofracture. Both processes still carry large uncertainties; e.g. how large are the current basal and surface melt fluxes and how will they change in a warming climate. The main objective of this project is to reduce the uncertainties in the atmospheric contribution to ice shelf instability. To that end, observations of atmospheric and snow conditions will be used to evaluate a regional climate model applied at high spatial resolution to the AP region. The results will be analysed for the present-day climate in terms of melt, snowfall, and firn air content. The regional climate model will then be forced with several future climate scenarios, exploring the sensitivity of the melt, snowfall and firn conditions in a changing climate.

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