The West Antarctic ice sheet is the last ice sheet of the type cradled in a warm, marine geologic basin. Its perimeter stretches into the surrounding seas allowing warmer ocean waters to reach the undersides of its floating ice shelves and its relatively low surface elevation permits snow-carrying storms to extend well into its interior. This special environment has given rise to theories of impending collapse and for the past quarter-century has challenged researchers who seek a quantitative prediction of its future behaviour and the corresponding effect on sea level. Observations confirm changes on a variety of time scales from the quaternary to less than a minute. The dynamics of the ice sheet involve the complex interaction of ice that is warm at its base and cold along the margins of ice streams; subglacial till that is composed of a combination of marine sediment and eroded sedimentary rocks; and water that moves primarily between the ice and bed, but whose flow direction can differ from the direction of ice motion. The pressure of the water system is often sufficient to float the ice sheet locally and small changes in the amount of water in the till can cause it to rapidly switch from very weak to very stiff.
One contribution of 14 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Evolution of the Antarctic Ice Sheet: new understanding and challenges’.
- © 2006 The Royal Society