Vulnerability of Antarctica’s ice shelves to meltwater-driven fracture

Ching Yao Lai, Jonathan Kingslake, Martin G. Wearing, Po Hsuan Cameron Chen, Pierre Gentine, Harold Li, Julian J. Spergel, J. Melchior van Wessem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

107 Scopus citations


Atmospheric warming threatens to accelerate the retreat of the Antarctic Ice Sheet by increasing surface melting and facilitating ‘hydrofracturing’1–7, where meltwater flows into and enlarges fractures, potentially triggering ice-shelf collapse3–5,8–10. The collapse of ice shelves that buttress11–13 the ice sheet accelerates ice flow and sea-level rise14–16. However, we do not know if and how much of the buttressing regions of Antarctica’s ice shelves are vulnerable to hydrofracture if inundated with water. Here we provide two lines of evidence suggesting that many buttressing regions are vulnerable. First, we trained a deep convolutional neural network (DCNN) to map the surface expressions of fractures in satellite imagery across all Antarctic ice shelves. Second, we developed a stability diagram of fractures based on linear elastic fracture mechanics to predict where basal and dry surface fractures form under current stress conditions. We find close agreement between the theoretical prediction and the DCNN-mapped fractures, despite limitations associated with detecting fractures in satellite imagery. Finally, we used linear elastic fracture mechanics theory to predict where surface fractures would become unstable if filled with water. Many regions regularly inundated with meltwater today are resilient to hydrofracture—stresses are low enough that all water-filled fractures are stable. Conversely, 60 ± 10 per cent of ice shelves (by area) both buttress upstream ice and are vulnerable to hydrofracture if inundated with water. The DCNN map confirms the presence of fractures in these buttressing regions. Increased surface melting17 could trigger hydrofracturing if it leads to water inundating the widespread vulnerable regions we identify. These regions are where atmospheric warming may have the largest impact on ice-sheet mass balance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)574-578
Number of pages5
Issue number7822
StatePublished - Aug 27 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


Dive into the research topics of 'Vulnerability of Antarctica’s ice shelves to meltwater-driven fracture'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this