Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 24 Issue 02

View Issue TOC
Volume 24, No. 2
Pages 94 - 111


Land Ice and Sea Level Rise: A Thirty-Year Perspective

By W. Tad Pfeffer  
Jump to
Article Abstract Citation References Copyright & Usage
Article Abstract

The present-day assessment of contributions to sea level rise from glaciers and ice sheets depends to a large degree on new technologies that allow efficient and precise detection of change in otherwise inaccessible polar regions. The creation of an overall research strategy, however, was set in early collaborative efforts nearly 30 years ago to assess and project the contributions of glaciers and ice sheets to sea level rise. Many of the research objectives recommended by those early collaborations were followed by highly successful research programs and led to significant accomplishments. Other objectives are still being pursued, with significant intermediate results, but have yet to mature into fully operational tools; among them is the fully deterministic numerical ice sheet model. Recognized as a crucial tool in 1983 by the first formal working group to be convened to quantitatively evaluate glaciers and ice sheet contributions to sea level in a CO2-warmed future environment, the deterministic numerical model of glacier and ice sheet behavior has been the ultimate prognostic tool sought by the glaciological research community ever since. Progress toward this goal has been thwarted, however, by lack of knowledge of certain physical processes, especially those associated with interactions of ice with the bedrock it rests on, and interactions of ice with the ocean and calving of icebergs. Over the last decade, when mass loss rates from Greenland and Antarctica started to accelerate, some means of projecting glacier and ice sheet changes became increasingly necessary, and alternatives to deterministic numerical models were sought. The result was a variety of extrapolation schemes that offer partial constraints on future glacier and ice sheet losses, but also contain significant uncertainties and rely on assumptions that are not always clearly expressed. This review examines the history of assessments of glacier and ice sheet contributions to sea level rise, and considers how questions asked 30 years ago shaped the nature of the research agenda being carried out today.


Pfeffer, W.T. 2011. Land ice and sea level rise: A thirty-year perspective. Oceanography 24(2):94–111, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2011.30.


Alley, R.B., D.D. Blankenship, S.T. Rooney, and C.R. Bentley. 1987. Till beneath Ice Stream B. 4. A coupled ice-till flow model. Journal of Geophysical Research 92:8,931–8,940.

Allison, I., R.B. Alley, H.A. Fricker, R.H. Thomas, and R.C. Warner. 2009. Ice Sheet mass balance and sea level. Antarctic Science 21(5):413–426.  [CrossRef]

Barnett, T.P. 1983. Recent changes in sea level and their possible causes. Climatic Change 5:15–38. [CrossRef]

Bartholomaus, T.C., R.S. Anderson, and S.P. Anderson. 2008. Response of glacier basal motion to transient water storage. Nature Geoscience 1:33–37. [CrossRef]

Bentley, C.R. 1987. Antarctic ice streams: A review. Journal of Geophysical Research 92:8,843–8,858.

Blanchon, P., A. Eisenhauer, J. Fietzke, and V. Liebetrau. 2009. Rapid sea-level rise and reef back-stepping at the close of the last interglacial highstand. Nature 458:881–884. [CrossRef]

Blaszczyk, M., J.A. Jania, and J.-O. Hagen. 2009. Tidewater glaciers of Svalbard: Recent changes and estimates of calving fluxes. Polish Polar Research 30:85–142.

Box, J.E., D.H. Bromwich, B.A. Veenhuis, L.S. Bai, J.C. Stroeve, J.C. Rogers, K. Steffen, T. Haran, and S.H. Wang. 2006. Greenland ice sheet surface mass balance variability (1988–2004) from calibrated polar MM5 output. Journal of Climate 19:2,783–2,800. [CrossRef]

Brown, C.S., M.F. Meier, and A.S. Post. 1982. Calving Speed of Alaska Tidewater Glaciers, with Application to Columbia Glacier. US Geological Survey Professional Paper 1258-C.

Cazenave, A., and W. Llovel. 2010. Contemporary sea level rise. Annual Review of Marine Science 2:145–173. [CrossRef]

Cazenave, A., A. Lombard, and W. Llovel. 2008. Present-day sea level rise: A synthesis. Comptes Rendus Geoscience 240:761–770. [CrossRef]

Cazenave, A., K. Dominh, S. Guinehut, E. Berthier, W. Llovel, G. Ramillien, M. Ablain, and G. Larnicol. 2009. Sea level budget over 2003–2008: A reevaluation from GRACE space gravimetry, satellite altimetry and Argo. Global and Planetary Change 65:83–88. [CrossRef]

Charney, J., A. Arakawa, D.J. Baker, B. Bolin, R.E. Dickinson, R.M. Goody, C.E. Leith, H.M. Stommel, and C.I. Wunsch. 1979. Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment. Report of an Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate. Woods Hole, Massachusetts. July 23–27, 1979, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 22 pp.

Church, J.A., J.M. Gregory, P. Huybrechts, M. Kuhn, K. Lambeck, M.T. Nhuan, D. Qin, and P.L. Woodworth. 2001. Changes in sea level. Pp. 639–694 in Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. J.T. Houghton, Y. Ding, D.J. Griggs, M. Noguer, P. van der Linden, X. Dai, K. Maskell, and C.I. Johnson, eds, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Cogley, J.G. 2009a. Geodetic and direct mass-balance measurements: Comparison and joint analysis. Annals of Glaciology 50:96–100. [CrossRef]

Cogley, J.G. 2009b. A more complete version of the World Glacier Inventory. Annals of Glaciology 50(53):32–38. [CrossRef]

Committee on Glaciology. 1985. Glaciers, Ice Sheets, and Sea Level: Effects of CO2-Induced Climatic Change. Report of a Workshop Held in Seattle, Washington, September 13–15, 1984. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 330 pp.

Denton, G.H., and T.J. Hughes, eds. 1981. The Last Great Ice Sheets. Wiley, New York, 484 pp.

Durand, G., J. Weiss, V. Lipenkov, J.M. Barnola, G. Krinner, F. Parrenin, B. Delmonte, C. Ritz, P. Duval, R. Röthlisberger, and M. Bigler. 2006. Effect of impurities on grain growth in cold ice sheets. Journal of Geophysical Research 111, F01015. [CrossRef]

Dyurgerov, M.B. 2010. Reanalysis of Glacier Changes: From the IGY to the IPY, 1960–2008. Data of Glaciological Studies, Publication 108, Moscow, October 2010, (in English), 116 pp.

Dyurgerov, M.B., and M.F. Meier. 2005. Glaciers and the Changing Earth System: A 2004 Snapshot. Occasional Paper 58, Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, 117 pp. Available online at: http://instaar.colorado.edu/other/occ_papers.html (accessed May 19, 2011).

Engelhardt, H., N. Humphrey, B. Kamb, and M. Fahnestock. 1990. Physical conditions at the base of a fast moving Antarctic ice stream. Science 248:57–59. [CrossRef]

Ettema, J., M.R. van den Broeke, E. van Meijgaard, W.J. van de Berg, J.L. Bamber, J.E. Box, and R.C. Bales. 2009. Higher surface mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet revealed by high-resolution climate modeling. Geophysical Research Letters 36, L12501. [CrossRef]

Fairbanks, R.G. 1989. A 17,000-year glacio-eustatic sea-level record: Influence of glacial melting rates on the Younger Dryas event and deep-ocean circulation. Nature 342(6250):637–642. [CrossRef]

Hansen, J. 2007. Scientific reticence and sea level rise. Environmental Research Letters 2(2). [CrossRef]

Hanson, B., and R.L. Hooke. 1994. Short-term velocity variations and basal coupling near a bergschrund, Storglaciären, Sweden. Journal of Glaciology 40:67–74.

Harper, J.T., N.F. Humphrey, W.T. Pfeffer, and B. Lazar. 2007. Two modes of accelerated glacier sliding related to water. Geophysical Research Letters 34, L12503. [CrossRef]

Hoffman, J.S., D. Keyes, and J.G. Titus. 1983. Projecting Future Sea Level Rise. US Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC.

Holland, D.M., R.H. Thomas, B. De Young, M.H. Ribergaard, and B. Lyberth. 2008. Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters. Nature Geoscience 1:659–664. [CrossRef]

Howat, I.M., S. Tulaczyk, E. Waddington, and H. Björnsson. 2008. Dynamic controls on glacier basal motion inferred from surface ice motion. Journal of Geophysical Research 113, F03015. [CrossRef]

Houghton, J.T., G.J. Jenkins, and J.J. Ephraums, eds. 1990. Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment. Report prepared for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by Working Group I. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Great Britain, New York, NY, USA, and Melbourne, Australia, 410 pp.

Houghton, J.T., L.G. Meira Filho, B.A. Callander, N. Harris, A. Kattenberg, and K. Maskell, eds. 1996. Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group I to the Second Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Great Britain, New York, NY, USA, and Melbourne, Australia, 584 pp.

Hughes, T.J. 1973. Is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet disintegrating? Journal of Geophysical Research 78:7,884–7,910.

Hughes, T.J. 1977. West Antarctic ice streams. Reviews of Geophysics 15:1–46. [CrossRef]

Iken, A., and R.A. Bindschadler. 1986. Combined measurements of subglacial water pressure and surface velocity of Findelengletscher, Switzerland: Conclusions about drainage system and sliding mechanism. Journal of Glaciology 32:101–119.

Iken, A., and M. Truffer. 1997. The relationship between subglacial water pressure and velocity of Findelengletscher, Switzerland, during its advance and retreat. Journal of Glaciology 43:328–338.

Jacka, T.H., and J. Li. 2000. Flow rates and crystal orientation fabrics in compression of polycrystalline ice at low temperatures and stresses. Pp. 83–102 in Physics of Ice Core Records. T. Hondoh, ed., Hokkaido University Press.

Jacobs, S.S., H.H. Hellmer, C. Doake, A. Jenkins, and R. Frolich. 1992. Melting of ice shelves and the mass balance of Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology 38(130):375–387.

Joughin, I., E. Rignot, C.E. Rosanova, B.K. Lucchitta, and J. Bohlander. 2003. Timing of recent accelerations of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters 30(13), 1706. [CrossRef]

Joughin, I., I.M. Howat, M. Fahnestock, B. Smith, W. Krabill, R. Alley, H. Stern, and M. Truffer. 2008. Continued evolution of Jakobshavn Isbræ following its rapid speedup. Journal of Geophysical Research 113, F04006. [CrossRef]

Kamb, B. 1991. Rheological nonlinearity and flow instability in the deforming bed mechanism of ice stream motion. Journal of Geophysical Research 96:16,585–16,595. [CrossRef]

Kamb, B., M.F. Meier, H. Engelhardt, M. Fahnestock, N. Humphrey, and D. Stone. 1994. Mechanical and hydrologic basis for the rapid motion of a large tidewater glacier. 2. Interpretation. Journal of Geophysical Research 99(B8):15,231–15,244.

Kaser, G., J.G. Cogley, M.B. Dyurgerov, M.F. Meier, and A. Ohmura. 2006. Mass balance of glaciers and ice caps: Consensus estimates for 1961–2004. Geophysical Research Letters 33, L19501. [CrossRef]

Lemke, P., J. Ren, R.B. Alley, I. Allison, J. Carrasco, G. Flato, Y. Fujii, G. Kaser, P. Mote, R.H. Thomas, and T. Zhang. 2007. Observations: Changes in snow, ice and frozen ground. In Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller, eds, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Lingle, C.S., T.J. Hughes, and R.C. Kollmeyer. 1981. Tidal flexure of Jakobshavns Glacier, West Greenland. Journal of Geophysical Research 86(B5):3,960–3,968. [CrossRef]

MacAyeal, D.R., T.A. Scambos, C.L. Hulbe, and M.A. Fahnestock. 2003. Catastrophic ice-shelf break-up by an ice-shelf-fragment-capsize mechanism. Journal of Glaciology 49:22–36. [CrossRef]

Meier, M.F. 1983. The effect of glaciers on global sea level. Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union 64(45):695.

Meier, M.F. 1984. Contribution of small glaciers to global sea level. Science 226(4681):1,418–1,421. [CrossRef]

Meier, M.F., S. Lundstrom, D. Stone, B. Kamb, H. Engelhardt, N. Humphrey, W.W. Dunlap, M. Fahnestock, R.M. Krimmel, and R. Walters. 1994. Mechanical and hydrologic basis for the rapid motion of a large tidewater glacier. 1. Observations. Journal of Geophysical Research 99(B8):15,219–15,229.

Meier, M.F., M.B. Dyurgerov, U.K. Rick, S. O’Neel, W.T. Pfeffer, R.S. Anderson, S.P. Anderson, and A.F. Glazovsky. 2007. Glaciers dominate eustatic sea-level rise in the 21st century. Science 317:1,064–1,067. [CrossRef]

Mercer, J.H. 1978. West Antarctic Ice Sheet and CO2 greenhouse effect: A threat of disaster. Nature 271:321–325. [CrossRef]

Motyka, R.J., M. Truffer, M. Fahnestock, J. Mortensen, S. Rysgaard, and I. Howat. 2011. Submarine melting of the 1985 Jakobshavn Isbræ floating tongue and the triggering of the current retreat. Journal of Geophysical Research 16, F01007. [CrossRef]

NAS (National Academy of Sciences). 1958. Planet Earth: The Mystery with 100,000 Clues. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC.

O’Neel, S., W.T. Pfeffer, R.M. Krimmel, and M.F. Meier. 2005. Evolving force balance at Columbia Glacier, Alaska, during its rapid retreat. Journal of Geophysical Research 110, F03012. [CrossRef]

Overpeck, J.T., B.L. Otto-Bliesner, G.H. Miller, D.R. Muhs, R.B. Alley, and J.T. Kiehl. 2006. Paleoclimatic evidence for future ice-sheet instability and rapid sea-level rise. Science 311:1,747–1,750. [CrossRef]

Parizek, B.R., and R.B. Alley. 2004. Implications of increased Greenland surface melt under global warming scenarios: Ice-sheet simulations. Quaternary Science Review 23:1,013–1,027. [CrossRef]

Pfeffer, W.T. 2007. A simple mechanism for irreversible tidewater glacier retreat. Journal of Geophysical Research 112(F3), F03S2. [CrossRef]

Radić, V., and R. Hock. 2010. Regional and global volumes of glaciers derived from statistical upscaling of glacier inventory data. Journal of Geophysical Research 115, F01010. [CrossRef]

Reeh, N. 1968. On the calving of ice from floating glaciers and ice shelves. Journal of Glaciology 7:215–232.

Rignot, E., and P. Kanagaratnam. 2006. Changes in the velocity structure of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Science 311:986–990. [CrossRef]

Rignot, E., and R.H. Thomas. 2002. Mass balance of the polar ice sheets. Science 297:1,502–1,506. [CrossRef]

Rignot, E., I. Velicogna, M.R. van den Broeke, A. Monaghan, and J. Lenaerts. 2011. Acceleration of the contribution of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to sea level rise. Geophysical Research Letters 38, L05503. [CrossRef]

Röthlisberger, H. 1972. Water pressure in intra- and subglacial channels. Journal of Glaciology 11:177–203.

Thomas, R.H., and C.R. Bentley. 1978. A model for the Holocene retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Quaternary Research 10:150–170. [CrossRef]

Thomas, R.H., T.J.D. Sanderson, and K.E. Rose. 1979. Effects of a climatic warming on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Nature 227:255–358. [CrossRef]

Thorarinsson, S. 1940. Present glacier shrinkage, and eustatic changes of sea-level. Geografiska Annaler 22:131–159. [CrossRef]

van den Broeke, M., J. Bamber, J. Ettema, E. Rignot, E. Schrama, W.J. van de Berg, E. van Meijgaard, I. Velicogna, and B. Wouters. 2009. Partitioning recent Greenland mass loss. Science 326(5955):984–986. [CrossRef]

Van der Veen, C.J., and I.M. Whillans. 1989. Force budget. I. Theory and numerical methods. Journal of Glaciology 35(119):53–60. [CrossRef]

Van der Veen, C.J., and I.M. Whillans. 1993. Location of mechanical controls on Columbia glacier, Alaska, USA, prior to its rapid retreat. Arctic and Alpine Research 25(2):99–105. [CrossRef]

Velicogna, I. 2009. Increasing rates of ice mass loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets revealed by GRACE. Geophysical Research Letters 36, L19503. [CrossRef]

Velicogna, I., and J. Wahr. 2006. Measurements of time-variable gravity show mass loss in Antarctica. Science 311:1,754–1,756. [CrossRef]

Wallen, C.C. 1981. Monitoring the world’s glaciers—The present situation. Geografiska Annaler, Series A, Physical Geography 63(3/4):197–200. [CrossRef]

Weertman, J. 1973. Can a water-filled crevasse reach the bottom surface of a glacier? Pp. 139–145 in Symposium on the Hydrology of Glaciers, Cambridge, England, 7-13 September 1969. Publication No. 95, Commission of Snow and Ice, International Association of Scientific Hydrology, International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics.

WGMS (World Glacier Monitoring Service). 2008. Fluctuations of Glaciers 2000–2005, vol. IX. W. Haeberli, M. Zemp, and M. Hoelzle, eds, ICSU(FAGS)/IUGG(IACS)/UNEP/UNESCO/WMO, World Glacier Monitoring Service, University of Zurich.

Winberry, J.P., S. Anandakrishnan, R.B. Alley, R.A. Bindschadler, and M.A. King. 2009. Basal mechanics of ice streams: Insights from the stick-slip motion of Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica. Journal of Geophysical Research 114, F01016. [CrossRef]

Young, R., and O. Pilkey. 2010. How high will seas rise? Get ready for seven feet. Yale Environment 360, posted January 14, 2010. http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2230 (accessed May 14, 2011).

Zwally, H.J., Giovinetto, M.B., J. Li, H.G. Cornejo, M.A. Beckley, A.C. Brenner, J.L. Saba, and D. Yi. 2005. Mass changes of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and shelves and contributions to sea-level rise: 1992–2002. Journal of Glaciology 51:509–527. [CrossRef]

Copyright & Usage

This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.