Damage accelerates ice shelf instability and mass loss in Amundsen Sea Embayment

Stef Lhermitte, Sainan Sun, Christopher Shuman, Bert Wouters, Frank Pattyn, Jan Wuite, Etienne Berthier, Thomas Nagler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Citations (Scopus)
19 Downloads (Pure)


Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier in the Amundsen Sea Embayment are among the fastest changing outlet glaciers in West Antarctica with large consequences for global sea level. Yet, assessing how much and how fast both glaciers will weaken if these changes continue remains a major uncertainty as many of the processes that control their ice shelf weakening and grounding line retreat are not well understood. Here, we combine multisource satellite imagery with modeling to uncover the rapid development of damage areas in the shear zones of Pine Island and Thwaites ice shelves. These damage areas consist of highly crevassed areas and open fractures and are first signs that the shear zones of both ice shelves have structurally weakened over the past decade. Idealized model results reveal moreover that the damage initiates a feedback process where initial ice shelf weakening triggers the development of damage in their shear zones, which results in further speedup, shearing, and weakening, hence promoting additional damage development. This damage feedback potentially preconditions these ice shelves for disintegration and enhances grounding line retreat. The results of this study suggest that damage feedback processes are key to future ice shelf stability, grounding line retreat, and sea level contributions from Antarctica. Moreover, they underline the need for incorporating these feedback processes, which are currently not accounted for in most ice sheet models, to improve sea level rise projections.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24735-24741
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number40
Early online date14 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - 6 Oct 2020
Externally publishedYes


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