Cryospheric Sciences

Sea Level Rise

Image of the Week – The solid Earth: softer than you might think!

Rebounding beach in the Canadian Artic [Credit : Mike Beauregard distributed by Wikimedia Commons]

Global sea level is rising and will continue to do so over the next century, as has once again been shown in the recent IPCC special report on 1.5°C. But did you know that, in some places of our planet, local sea level is actually falling, and this due to rising of the continent itself?! Where is this happening? In places where huge ice sheets used to cover the land surface during the last ice age, such as Scandinavia, Canada, or Siberia. Even though these ice sheets melted several thousands of years ago, the land that once lied under them is still rising in reaction to the release of their previous burden. This is what we call Glacial Isostatic Adjustment or GIA. Where does this adjustment come from? Our Earth is not as solid as you would think…

Our Image of the Week represents a layered beach located in Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic. This specific landform is caused by the glacial rebound of the Arctic coastline resulting from the response of the lithosphere to the melting of the Laurentide Ice sheet, an ice sheet that used to cover the North American continent until less than 10 000 years ago.

Earth during Last Ice Age [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

What is Glacial Isostatic Adjustment?

Imagine sitting on a very comfy couch, watching a movie. At the end of the movie, the couch has perfectly adapted to the shape of your body. Once you get up, you’re still able to see where you’ve been sitting, as the couch takes a little time to get back to its original form. Well… this is exactly what happens with the Earth’s crust and mantle. To understand this, you need to visualize the internal structure of our planet Earth, which is layered in spherical shells: under our feet lie the rocky tectonic plates, which constitute the Earth’s crust. These crusty plates – whose thickness varies between a few kilometers under oceans to a few tens of kilometers under the continents – are floating on a viscous layer, called the mantle. It is almost 3000 kilometers thick and actually slowly flows like a liquid, at a speed of a few centimeters per year.

Even though the Earth’s crust is a very strong material, the pressure applied by an ice sheet thick of several kilometers is so important that the crust will locally deform under the heavy ice mass, sinking down into the viscous mantle. That’s what happened over large areas of the Northern Hemisphere that were covered by ice masses during the last ice age, and what is still happening in the remaining ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, which have been depressing the Earth’s crust beneath them for thousands of years.

Just like for the couch in the example above, when the weight is removed, the mantle rebounds, carrying with it the overlying crust. Over the 20 000 years since the last glacial maximum, lands now relieved of their previous ice-burden are gradually rebounding. The Earth’s delayed response to the variation of mass on its surface is explained by the viscous character of the Earth’s mantle.

Glacial Isostatic Adjustment [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Why is it important to take it into account?

Even though the Siberian, Scandinavian and Laurentide ice sheets melted several thousands of years ago (causing a rise in global sea level), these regions that were previously glaciated are still locally emerging to compensate the loss of their overlying weight. The level of the coastline relative to the local sea-level thus increases. One says that the “relative sea level” is falling, and this at a rate that is essentially determined by the rate of the post-glacial rebound (which can exceed 1 cm/year in some areas, as shown in the figure below!). The rates of relative sea level can be influenced even at sites that are quite far away from the centres of the last glaciation, although it is much less significant.

Rate of the post-glacial rebound [Credit: NASA, Wikimedia Commons]

A good understanding of glacial isostatic adjustment is important to distinguish the different components and contributors to a local sea-level evolution: what part is due to the uplift of the land? And what part is due to the rising of global sea-level?
In addition, glacial isostatic adjustment also impacts the behaviour of  modern Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. By influencing the geometry of the underlying bedrock, it will impact the sensitivity of the ice sheet to global warming and thus the glacial isostatic adjustment itself: this is a vicious circle!

The problem is that glacial isostatic adjustment also depends on the local properties of the Earth’s crust and mantle, which are not constant at the Earth’s surface. A lot of work is still needed to understand all of this properly. Luckily, since NASA launched GRACE – a satellite mission that maps variations in the Earth’s gravity field –  in 2002, scientists have observations they can use to constrain their models and improve their understanding of this complicated matter.

Further reading

Edited by Clara Burgard and Sophie Berger

Image of the Week – Delaying the flood with glacial geoengineering

Figure 1: Three examples of glacial geoengineering techniques to mitigate sea-level rise from ice-sheet melting [Credit: Adapted from Figure 1 of Moore et al. (2018); Design: Claire Welsh/Nature].

As the climate is currently warming, many countries and cities are preparing to cope with one of its major impacts, namely sea-level rise. Up to now, the mitigation of climate change has mainly focused on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Large-scale geoengineering has also been proposed to remove carbon from the atmosphere or inject aerosols into the stratosphere to limit the rise in temperature. But locally-targeted geoengineering techniques could also provide a way to avoid some of the worst impacts, like the sea-level rise. In this Image of the Week, we present examples of such a technique that could be applied to the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (Moore et al., 2018; Wolovick and Moore, 2018).

Sea level is rising…

The sea level of the world oceans has been rising at a mean rate of 3 mm per year since the 1990s, mainly due to ocean thermal expansion, land-ice melting and changes in freshwater storage (see this post). More than 90% of coastal areas could experience a sea-level rise exceeding 20 cm with a 2°C warming (relative to the pre-industrial period), which is likely to happen by the middle of this century (Jevrejeva et al., 2016).

The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets constitute two huge reservoirs of ice and contain the equivalent of 60 and 7 m of sea-level rise, respectively, if completely melted. Although a complete disintegration of these two ice sheets is not on the agenda in the coming years, surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the flow of some major polar glaciers could be enhanced by different positive feedbacks (see this post on climate feedbacks and this post on marine ice sheet instability). These feedbacks would elevate the sea level even more than projected by the models.

… but could potentially be delayed by glacial geoengineering

In order to cope with this threat, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions might not be sufficient to delay the rise of sea level. One alternative has been suggested by Moore et al. (2018) and consists of using glacial geoengineering techniques in the vicinity of fast-flowing glaciers of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. They propose three different ways to delay sea-level rise from these glaciers and these are presented in our Image of the Week (Fig. 1):

A.   A pumping station could be installed at the top of the glacier with the aim of extracting or freezing the water at the glacier base. This would slow down the glacier sliding on the bedrock and reduce its contribution to sea-level rise.

B.   An artificial island (about 300 m high) could be built in the cavity under the floating section of the glacier (or ice shelf). This would enhance the so-called buttressing effect (see this post) and decrease the glacier flow to the ocean.

C.   A wall of up to 100 m high could be built in the ocean bay right in the front of the ice shelf. This would block (partially or completely) any warm water circulating underneath the ice shelf and delay the sub-shelf melting (see this post).

In theory

Wolovick and Moore (2018) studied in detail the possibility of building artificial islands (proposal B above) underneath the ice shelf of Thwaites Glacier (West Antarctica), one of the largest glacier contributors to the ongoing sea-level rise. They used a simple ice-flow model coupled to a simple ocean model and considered different warming scenarios in which they introduced an artificial island underneath the ice shelf.

Figure 2 below illustrates an example coming from their analysis. In the beginning (Fig. 2b), the grounding line (separation between the grounded ice sheet in blue and the floating ice shelf in purple) is located on top of a small mountain range. When running the model under a global warming scenario, the grounding line retreats inland and the glacier enters into a ‘collapsing phase’ (Fig. 2c; marine ice sheet instability). The introduction of an artificial island under the ice shelf with a potential to block half the warm ocean water allows the ice shelf to reground (Fig. 2d; the ice-shelf base touches the top of the small island below). The unprotected seaward part of the ice shelf shrinks over time, while the protected inland part thickens and regrounds (Fig. 2e-f), which overall decreases the glacier mass loss to the ocean.

Figure 2: Example of a model experiment realized on Thwaites Glacier by Wolovick and Moore (2018). Different times are presented and show the (b) initial state, (c) the collapse underway, (d) the initial effect of the construction of the artificial island below the ice shelf, (e) the removal of the seaward ice shelf and thickening of the landward ice shelf, (f) the stabilization of the glacier [Credit: Figure 5 of Wolovick and Moore (2018)].

In practice

The model experiments presented above show that delaying sea-level rise from glacier outflow is possible in theory. In practice, this would mean substantial geoengineering efforts. For building a small artificial island under the ice shelf of Pine Island Glacier (West Antarctica), 0.1 km3 of gravel and sand would be necessary. That same quantity would be sufficient to build a 100 m high wall in front of Jakobshavn Glacier (Greenland) to prevent warm water from melting the ice base. For building such a wall in front of Pine Island Glacier, a quantity of 6 km3 (60 times more than Jakobshavn) of material would be needed.

In comparison, the Three Gorges Dam used 0.03 km3 of cast concrete, the Hong Kong’s airport required around 0.3 km3 of landfill, and the excavation of the Suez Canal necessitated 1 km3 of material. Thus, the quantities needed for building glacial geoengineering structures are comparable in size to the current large engineering projects.

However, many other aspects need to be considered when implementing such a project. In particular, the construction of such structures in cold waters surrounded by icebergs and sea ice is much more difficult than in a typical temperate climate. A detailed study of physical processes in the region of the glacier, such as ocean circulation, iceberg calving, glacier sliding and erosion, and melting rates, is needed before performing such projects. Also, the number of people needed to work on a project of this scale is an important factor to include.

Potential adverse effects

Beside all the factors that need to be considered to implement such a project, there is a list of potential adverse effects. One of the main risks is to the marine ecosystems, which could be affected by the constructions of the islands and walls. Also, if not properly designed, the geoengineering solutions could accelerate the sea-level rise instead of delaying it. For instance, in the case of water extraction (proposal A above), the glacier might speed up rather than slow down if water at the glacier’s base is trapped in pockets.

Wolovick and Moore (2018) do not advocate that glacial geoengineering is done any time soon, due to the different factors mentioned above. Instead, they suggest that we start thinking about technological solutions that could delay sea-level rise. Other studies also look at different glacial geoengineering ideas (see this post).

In summary

Glacial geoengineering techniques constitute a potential way to cope with one of the greatest challenges related to global warming, namely sea-level rise. In theory, these projects are possible, while in practice a series of technical difficulties and potential ecological risks do not allow us to implement them soon.

While important to keep thinking about these solutions, the most important action that humanity can take in order to delay sea-level rise is to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. And scientists like us need to keep carefully studying the cryosphere and the Earth’s climate in general.

Further reading

Edited by Jenny Turton

David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.


Image of the week – Learning from our past!

Image of the week – Learning from our past!

Understanding the climate evolution of our planet is not an easy task, but it is essential to understand the past if we are to predict the future! Historic climate cycles provide us with a glimpse into a period of time when the Earth was warmer than it was today. Our image of the week looks at these warmer periods of time to see what they can tell us about the future! For example, during the Pliocene, the global mean sea level was greater than 6 m higher than it is today… so what can these historic records tell us about the future of the ice sheets and their contribution to sea-level rise?

We will work forward in time from 3 million years ago to present-day and examine the evidence we have about the past climate of Earth. In this time period there have been cycles of warm and cool climate (glacials and interglacials – see our previous post). Here we will examine those interglacial periods where the climate was warmer than the preindustrial period (before 1750).

The Pliocene ~ 3 million years ago

Approximately 3 million years ago during the mid-Pliocene period, the earth experienced climate cycles every 41,000 years, and the atmospheric CO2 ranged from 350 to 450 ppm compared to around 400 ppm today and 250 ppm preindustrial. During the Pliocene period, peak global mean temperatures were on average 1.9ºC to 3.6ºC warmer than preindustrial temperatures. Ice sheet modelers have used these changes in climatic conditions to estimate the retreat of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which predicted the global mean sea level to rise ~6 and ~7 m, respectively (see our Image of the Week). Others have used geochemical methods to reconstruct historic sea level, which suggest that the global mean sea-level rise was 21 ± 10 m! While these studies provide great reason to be alarmed, they are unfortunately plagued with uncertainty that makes it challenging to provide any robust estimates of future sea-level rise based on the Pliocene period. Fortunately, more data is available from time periods closer to the present.

Marine Isotope Stage 11 (MIS 11) ~ 400 thousand years ago

Approximately 400,000 years ago, the earth experienced an unusually long period of warming, where the global mean temperature was estimated to be 1-2ºC warmer than preindustrial levels (see our Image of the Week). This period is known as MIS 11. Historic records such as pollen records, biomolecules, and ice-rafted debris suggest that the Greenland ice sheet severely retreated to the extent that forests developed on Southern Greenland! Ice sheet modelers estimate that this retreat in Greenland could have contributed 4.5 – 6 m to the global mean sea level rise. Paleoshoreline reconstruction at sites across the globe suggests that that the global mean sea level rise was ~6 – 13 m, which supports the large retreat experienced by the Greenland ice sheet and suggests that the Antarctic ice sheet likely experienced significant retreat as well if those higher estimates of sea level rise (~13 m) occurred.

Marine Isotope Stage 5 (MIS 5e) ~ 125 thousand years ago

Approximately 125,000 years ago, the earth experienced a period of warming approximately 1ºC warmer than preindustrial levels, known as MIS 5e. This warmer period has significantly more data available compared to the other time periods. It is often the case that more recent times have more abundant data and in this caseshorelines that developed during MIS 5e provide an excellent record of global mean sea level being an estimated 6 – 9 m higher than present.

Modeling studies suggest that at this time 0.6 – 3.5 m of sea level rise can be attributed to the retreat of the Greenland ice sheet and ~1 m can be attributed to thermal expansion and the melt of mountain glaciers (see Figure 2). Therefore, despite a lack of mass loss records of the Antarctic ice sheet at this time , it is likely that it underwent considerable retreat to enable contributing to the additional sea level rise.

Figure 2: Compilation of MIS 5e reconstructions for peak GMSL, the Greenland ice sheet contribution, and bets estimate of the total sea level budget [Credit: Dutton et al. (2015)].

What does this all mean for our future…

The further back in time, the larger the sources of uncertainty. Hence, there is fairly limited data regarding the Pliocene that may be used to help predict future conditions. Additionally, it’s important to remember that the climatic cycles in the Earth’s history resulted largely from changes in the Earth’s orbit. This is why the CO2 level associated with MIS 5e and 11 are similar to preindustrial levels, and yet these periods experienced significant increases in global mean temperature accompanied by rises in the global mean sea-level.

what we do know from the past is that both ice sheets experienced significant mass loss during these warm periods that directly impacted sea-level rise.

Today, the CO2 concentrations are around 407 ppm and the peak global mean temperature is approximately 1ºC warmer than preindustrial times (see the Image of the Week). For reference, the Paris Climate Accord is trying to bring our world leaders together to keep the peak global mean temperatures lower than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels. While the cause of the warming periods might be different, what we do know from the past is that both ice sheets experienced significant mass loss during these warm periods that directly impacted sea-level rise. Therefore, it’s very important to monitor and improve our future projections of mass loss from these ice sheets in order to better understand how sea-level rise will affect us.

Further Reading

  • Read the paper this article is based on here

Edited by Emma Smith 

Image of the Week – Storing water in Antarctica to delay sea-level rise

Image of the Week – Storing water in Antarctica to delay sea-level rise


Sea level rise

Sea-level rise is one of the main impacts of the current global warming and its rate has dramatically increased in the last decades (the current rate is about 3 mm per year). Even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped today, sea level would continue to rise due to the slow Earth climate system response (IPCC, 2013, chap. 13). It is therefore a considerable threat for populations living close to the coastlines with the big cities most at risk.

Storing water in Antarctica


Modelling water storage

In order to face sea-level rise, many adaptations measures have been planned and already taken (e.g. building barriers and dikes, broadening dunes). In a recent study, Frieler et al. (2016) investigated the possible pumping of sea water from the Southern Ocean and its storage as ice in Antarctica in order to delay sea-level rise. Once on top of the ice sheet, this water would freeze to solid ice. The authors used the Parallel Ice Sheet Model (PISM) to estimate the ice sheet response’s to different ice addition scenarios starting from an equilibrium state. In the experiments, ice was continuously added for 100 years, then this addition was stopped and the model was run for 1000 years to quantify the subsequent ice loss through discharge to the ocean.

What would happen?

One of the key results is that the distance from the coast at which the water is added to the ice sheet strongly controls the ice loss 1000 years after the forcing ends. When the ice is added 200 km from the coastline, 10 to 15% of the added ice is already lost after 100 years and most of it is lost 1000 years after the end of the forcing, contributing to sea-level rise. When the distance is 800 km from the coastline, the ice-sheet contribution to sea-level rise is strongly delayed and a broad ice gain persists after 1000 years (see figure).

Practical considerations

Even if pumping water onto Antarctica could delay future sea-level rise, this solution would need to overcome technical difficulties. For example, the energy needed to pump water onto the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet would be about 7% of the current global primary energy supply! In order not to enhance further the current global warming, this energy would need to be generated from renewable sources, e.g. from wind farms installed on the Antarctic continent.

Food for thoughts…

This original study finally raises the question: do we value the uninhabited Antarctica more than we value our populated coastlines? It does not provide an answer but gives some insights. The impact of such a solution on the environment and the global economy would need to be further investigated. Even if this adaptation measure would delay sea-level rise, future generations would pay the price when the ice addition is stopped. Therefore, carbon emission mitigation measures are currently the safest way of not deteriorating our environment.


Frieler K., Mengel M., Levermann A. (2016). Delaying future sea-level rise by storing water in Antarctica, Earth System Dynamics, 7, 203-210, doi: 10.5194/esd-7-203-2016.

(Edited by Sophie Berger and Emma Smith)

David Docquier is a post-doctoral researcher at the Earth and Life Institute of Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium. He works on the development of processed-based sea-ice metrics in order to improve the evaluation of global climate models (GCMs). His study is embedded within the EU Horizon 2020 PRIMAVERA project, which aims at developing a new generation of high-resolution GCMs to better represent the climate.

Image of the Week — Ice Sheets and Sea Level Rise (from IPCC)

Image of the Week — Ice Sheets and Sea Level Rise (from IPCC)


On the eve of the COP21, it is of paramount importance to recall how strongly the cryosphere is affected by Climate Change. Today, we present the impact of melting ice on sea level rise, as it is presented in the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Quick facts

-Since 1992, the Glaciers, Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets have risen the sea level by 14, 8 and 6 mm, respectively.
-The Greenland and Antarctic ice losses have accelerated for the last 2 decades.
In Greenland ice-loss rates increased from 34 Gt/yr* (between 1992-2001) to 215 Gt/yr (between 2002-2011), which was caused by more widespread surface melt + run-off and enhanced discharge of outlet glaciers.
While in Antarctica, ice-loss rates “only” rose from  30 Gt/yr (between 1992-2001) to 147 Gt/yr (between 2002-2011), this loss mostly occurred in West Antarctica (Amundsen Sea Sector and Antarctic Peninsula) and  was driven by  the acceleration of outlet glaciers.


*An ice loss of 100 Gt/yr is approximately 0.28 mm/yr of sea level equivalent

Further Reading [Read More]