Geosciences Column: Scientists pinpoint where seawater could be leaking into Antarctic ice shelves

Geosciences Column: Scientists pinpoint where seawater could be leaking into Antarctic ice shelves

Over the last few decades, Antarctic ice shelves have been disintegrating at a rapid rate, likely due to warming atmospheric and ocean temperatures, according to scientists. New research reveals that one type of threat to ice shelf stability might be more widespread that previously thought.

A study recently published in EGU’s open access journal The Cryosphere identified several regions in Antarctica were liquid seawater could be leaking into vulnerable layers of an ice shelf.

Scientists have known for some time now that seawater can seep into an ice shelf’s firn layer, the region of compacted snow that is on its way to becoming ice. This seawater infiltration presents an issue to the ice shelf’s stability, since as the seawater spreads throughout the firn layer, the water can create fractures and help expand crevasses already present in the frozen material. Past research has shown that the presence of liquid brine from seawater within an ice shelf is correlated to increased fracturing and calving.

While ice shelf collapse doesn’t directly contribute to sea level rise, since the ice is already floating, stable ice shelves often push back on land-based ice sheets and glaciers, slowing down ice flow into the ocean. Past research has suggested that once an ice shelf collapses, the rate of ice flow from unsupported glaciers can greatly accelerate.

To better understand Antarctic ice shelves’ risk of collapse, the researchers involved with this new study sought to identify where ice shelf firn layers are vulnerable to seawater infiltration. Using Antarctic geometry data, they mapped out the potential ‘brine zones’ within the continent’s ice shelves. These are regions of the ice shelf where the firn layer is both below the sea level and permeable enough to let seawater percolate through.

The results of their analysis revealed that almost all ice shelves in Antarctica have spots where seawater can potentially leak through their layers, with about 10-40 percent of the continent’s total ice shelf area possibly at risk of infiltration.

Map of potential brine zones areas around Antarctica. Map shows areas where permeable firn lies below sea level (the brine zone), with the threshold for firn permeability defined as 750 kg m−3 (red), 800 kg m−3 (yellow) and 830 kg m−3 (blue) calculated using Bedmap2 surface elevation. Bar charts show the mean percentage area of selected ice shelves covered by the brine zone. (Credit: S. Cook et al. 2018)

The researchers compared their estimated points to a map of previously confirmed brine zones, observed through ice cores or radar surveys. After reviewing these records, they identified only one record of brine presence that hadn’t been highlighted by their developed model.

The study found many areas in Antarctica where seawater infiltration could be possible, but has not been previously observed. The findings suggest that this firn layer vulnerability to seawater might be more widespread than previously believed.

The researchers suggest that the most likely new regions where brine from seawater may be present includes the Abbot Ice Shelf, Nickerson Ice Shelf, Sulzberger Ice Shelf, Rennick Ice Shelf, and slower-moving areas of Shackleton Ice Shelf. The regions all contain large swathes of permeable firn below sea level while also subject to relatively warm air temperatures and low flow speeds, the ideal conditions for maintaining liquid brine.

The study points out that there are still many uncertainties in this research, considering the unknowns still present in the data used for mapping and the factors that may influence seawater infiltration. For example, some areas that have large predicted brine zones have an unusually think layer of firn from heavy snowfall. This is the case for the Edward VIII Bay in eastern Antarctica. “Our results indicate the total ice shelf area where permeable firn lies below sea level, but this does not necessarily imply that the firn contains brine,” the authors of the study noted in their article.

Given their findings, the researchers involved recommend that this potentially widespread influence on ice shelves should be further examined and assessed by future studies.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer


Cook, S., Galton-Fenzi, B. K., Ligtenberg, S. R. M. and Coleman, R.: Brief communication: widespread potential for seawater infiltration on Antarctic ice shelves, The Cryosphere, 12(12), 3853–3859, doi:10.5194/tc-12-3853-2018, 2018.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O., D. Jacob, M. Taylor, M. Bindi, S. Brown, I. Camilloni, A. Diedhiou, R. Djalante, K.L. Ebi, F. Engelbrecht, J.Guiot, Y. Hijioka, S. Mehrotra, A. Payne, S.I. Seneviratne, A. Thomas, R. Warren, and G. Zhou, 2018: Impacts of 1.5ºC Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I.Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T.Maycock, M.Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. In Press

Scambos, T. A.: Glacier acceleration and thinning after ice shelf collapse in the Larsen B embayment, Antarctica, Geophysical Research Letters, 31(18), doi:10.1029/2004gl020670, 2004.

Scambos, T., Fricker, H. A., Liu, C.-C., Bohlander, J., Fastook, J., Sargent, A., Massom, R. and Wu, A.-M.: Ice shelf disintegration by plate bending and hydro-fracture: Satellite observations and model results of the 2008 Wilkins ice shelf break-ups, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 280(1–4), 51–60, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2008.12.027, 2009.

State of the Cryosphere: Ice Shelves. National Snow & Ice Data Center

Imaggeo on Mondays: The calm before the storm

Imaggeo on Mondays: The calm before the storm

The picture was taken during the 2015 research cruise HE441 in the southern German Bight, North Sea. It features the research vessel Heincke, on a remarkably calm and warm spring day, forming a seemingly steady wake.

The roughly 55 metre long FS Heincke, owned by the German federal government and operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute, provides a great platform for local studies of the North Sea shelf. Eleven scientists and students from the University of Bremen, MARUM Research Faculty, University of Kiel, and Federal Waterways Engineering and Research Institute, along with the ship’s crew formed a great team under the supervision of chief scientist Christian Winter.

On deck, different autonomous underwater observatories were waiting to be deployed. Their purpose was to measure the seabed- and hydrodynamics in a targeted area of the German Bight. The investigation of the interaction between geomorphology, sedimentology and biogeochemistry is crucial to understand the processes acting on this unique and dynamic environment. In the German Bight various stakeholders with diverse interests come together. Profound knowledge, backed by cutting edge research, helps to resolve future conflicts between use and protection of the environment.

While this photo features a tranquil day at sea, some days later the weather and wave conditions got so bad that the cruise had to be abandoned. Storm Niklas, causing wave heights of more than three metres, made deployment and recovery of the observatories too dangerous for the crew, scientists, and delicate instruments.

Despite the severe weather, the research cruise was still able to gather important data with the time made available. Schedules on research vessels are tight and optimized to fit as much high-quality measurements as possible into time slots that are depending on convenient sea (tide) and weather conditions. State-of-the-art research equipment were prepared, deployed, recovered and assessed several times during the then only 8-day long cruise. Measurements were supported by ship based seabed mapping and water column profiling. Transit times, like the one depicted, were used to prepare the different sensors and instruments for the upcoming deployment.

The rare occasion of good weather combined with idle time was utilized to take this long exposure photo. A calm sea, a stable clamp temporarily attached to a handrail, and a neutral density filter were additionally required to increase the exposure time of the camera to 13 seconds, in order to capture this picture. The long exposure time smooths all movement relative to the ship, enhancing the effect of the wake behind the Heincke vessel.

Over the course of several years, regular Heincke research cruises and the collaboration between the different institutions has led to the successful completion of research projects, with findings being published in various journals, listed below.

By Markus Benninghoff, MARUM, University of Bremen, Germany

Further reading

Ahmerkamp, S, Winter, C, Janssen, F, Kuypers, MMM and Holtappels, M (2015) The impact of bedform migration on benthic oxygen fluxes. Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, 120(11). 2229-2242. doi:10.1002/2015JG003106

Ahmerkamp, S, Winter, C, Krämer, K, de Beer, D, Janssen, F, Friedrich, J, Kuypers, MMM and Holtappels, M (2017) Regulation of benthic oxygen fluxes in permeable sediments of the coastal ocean. Limnology and Oceanography. doi:10.1002/lno.10544

Amirshahi, SM, Kwoll, E and Winter, C (2018) Near bed suspended sediment flux by single turbulent events. Continental Shelf Research, 152. 76-86. doi:10.1016/j.csr.2017.11.005

Krämer, K and Winter, C (2016) Predicted ripple dimensions in relation to the precision of in situ measurements in the southern North Sea. Ocean Science, 12(6). 1221-1235. doi:10.5194/os-12-1221-2016

Krämer, K, Holler, P, Herbst, G, Bratek, A, Ahmerkamp, S, Neumann, A, Bartholomä, A, van Beusekom, JEE, Holtappels, M and Winter, C (2017) Abrupt emergence of a large pockmark field in the German Bight, southeastern North Sea. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05536-1

Oehler, T, Martinez, R, Schückel, U, Winter, C, Kröncke, I and Schlüter, M (2015) Seasonal and spatial variations of benthic oxygen and nitrogen fluxes in the Helgoland Mud Area (southern North Sea). Continental Shelf Research, 106. 118-129. doi:10.1016/j.csr.2015.06.009

If you pre-register for the 2019 General Assembly (Vienna, 07–12 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 15 January until 15 February, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sunset on the Giant’s Causeway

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sunset on the Giant’s Causeway

Pictured here is the Giant’s Causeway – a region of basalt columns, created 50-60 million years ago during the Paleogene. The typical polygonal form of the bedrocks, a product of active volcanic processes from the past, is well underlined by the sunset’s light; that’s why I took the photo in the late evening. The separate cracks are extended by weathering over time and are filled eluvium, geological debris from the erosion.

After the lava cooled, approximately 40,000 columns have since been polished by sea wave action. I decided to show the slow action of the sea with a long exposure, because it’s a continuous process, not obvious at first to an untrained person, but nevertheless very important now. I think in one photo we can find a deep history of Earth’s development, which palaeogeographers are still trying to understand.

by Osip Kokin, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Russia

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licenceSubmit your photos at

Underwater robot shares ocean secrets

Underwater robot shares ocean secrets

Buoyancy-driven drones are helping scientists paint a picture of the ocean with sound.

Around the world, silent marine robots are eavesdropping on the ocean and its inhabitants. The robots can travel 1000 metres beneath the surface and cover thousands of kilometres in a single trip, listening in on the ocean as they go.

These bright yellow bots, known as Seagliders, are about the size of a diver, but can explore the ocean for months on end, periodically relaying results to satellites.

Researchers have been utilising gliders for about 20 years, first using them to measure temperature and salinity. But over time, scientists have expanded their capabilities and now they can record ocean sounds.

You can learn a lot from the recordings if you know how to read them. The background noise is produced by high winds, the low frequency rumble comes from moving ships, and the punctuating whistles and clicks are produced by different marine species.

Sperm whale and dolphin echolocation clicks. Every two seconds you hear a loud click, the sound of a sperm whale. The more rapid clicks correspond to dolphins. Credit: University of East Anglia

Pierre Cauchy, a PhD researcher from the University of East Anglia, UK, has been using seagliders to create an underwater soundscape across the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Southern Oceans. He presented his latest findings at the EGU General Assembly in Vienna last week.

Here in the ocean, the nights can be noisier than the days. When the sun goes down, fish sing out in chorus, a sound that rings out at 700 Hz. “I wasn’t expecting that, it was serendipitous,” says Cauchy. It’s not only fish that can be picked up by the gliders; dolphins and whales make characteristic whistles and clicks, meaning species can be identified from their vocal patterns alone.

The next step is to cross check the recordings with others made in the area, and confirm which species he’s been listening to. In the future, Cauchy hopes the technology will be used to monitor changes in ecosystem health over time.

While it’s hard to know what a healthy ecosystem sounds like, you can monitor the same spot from year to year and work out whether it is healthier, or less healthy than it was previously. A more healthy ecosystem may be filled with the sounds of different fish, and other species, representing a diverse, species-rich habitat.. A less healthy one would be quiet, or more monotonous.

Pod of long-finned pilot whales in the North Atlantic. Credit: University of East Anglia

The sound of a pod of pilot whales – bright areas indicate bursts of sound at a particular frequency. The patterns and frequencies differ for each species. Credit: Cauchy et al. (2008).

Scientists could also use gliders to fill gaps in our understanding of extreme weather around the world, especially in places where collecting data is a challenge, like the high seas. “That’s the good thing with gliders, you can send them where data is needed,” emphasises Cauchy.

Researchers have been using satellite data to validate wind speed models and map weather events like hurricanes, but even satellites need to be calibrated against measurements made on the Earth’s surface. The seagliders can do just that; hydrophones pick up wind at two to 10 kilohertz and the faster the wind, the louder the sound. “The more in-situ data you have, the better your satellite data is, and that’s better for the models,” Cauchy explains.

Future work could see scientists sending gliders into hurricanes to measure wind speeds reached during extreme weather events.

By Sara Mynott


Cauchy, P. Passive Acoustic Monitoring from ocean gliders. EGU General Assembly. 2018. 

EGU General Assembly press conference recording available here.