‘Stable’ and ‘unstable’ are not useful descriptions of marine ice sheets in the Earth’s climate system

Olga Sergienko, Marianne Haseloff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Investigations of the time-dependent behavior of marine ice sheets and their sensitivity to basal conditions require numerical models because existing theoretical analyses focus only on steady-state configurations primarily with a power-law basal shear stress. Numerical results indicate that the choice of the sliding law strongly affects ice-sheet dynamic behavior. Although observed or simulated grounding-line retreat is typically interpreted as an indication of marine ice sheet instability introduced by Weertman (1974), this (in)stability is a characteristic of the ice sheet’s steady states – not time-variant behavior. To bridge the gap between theoretical and numerical results, we develop a framework to investigate grounding line dynamics with generalized basal and lateral stresses (i.e. the functional dependencies are not specified). Motivated by observations of internal variability of the Southern Ocean conditions we explore the grounding-line response to stochastic variability. We find that adding stochastic variability to submarine melt rates that produced stable steady-state configurations leads to intermittently advancing and retreating grounding lines. They can also retreat in an unstoppable manner on time-scales significantly longer than the stochastic correlation time-scales. These results suggest that at any given time of their evolution, the transient behavior of marine ice sheets cannot be described in terms of ‘stable’ or ‘unstable’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1483-1499
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Glaciology
Issue number277
StatePublished - Oct 21 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Earth-Surface Processes


  • ice shelves
  • ice streams
  • Ice-sheet modeling


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