Ice Sheet Mass Balance and Sea Level (ISMASS) Expert Group


Why measure the mass balance of the icesheets?

There is around 7 metres of potential sea-level rise locked up in the Greenland icesheets and 57 metres in the Antarctic Icesheets. 

The mass balance of a glacier or ice sheet is the net balance between the mass gained by snow deposition, and the loss of mass by melting (either at the glacier surface or under the floating ice shelves or ice tongues) and calving (production of icebergs). A negative mass balance means that a glacier is losing mass, and, for grounded glaciers and ice sheets, this mass loss directly contributes to sea level rise (the melting of floating ice shelves and ice tongues does not contribute to sea level rise, because of the lower density of ice as compared to water, which determines the floating portion of the ice). This is one of the reasons why it is important, under a warming climate, to have accurate estimates of the mass balance of glaciers and ice sheets.

How is the mass balance estimated?

Past mass balance rates can be estimated from ice core data, although the proper dating of the samples is challenging. For the deeper parts of the ice core (representing the older data), the dating requires modelling the ice sheet dynamics.

For the large ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, the estimate of present mass balance is only possible using remote sensing (satellite or airborne) techniques, though these need to be calibrated and validated against measurements done on the glacier surface.

For predicting future mass balance, under different scenarios of climate change, it is necessary to use models of the dynamics and thermal regime of the glaciers and ice sheets. These models have to be integrated with climate models (that provide the information on accumulation and melting at the glacier surface) and oceanic models (which provide the interaction between the ice sheets and the ocean).

The Expert Group on Ice Sheet Mass Balance and Sea Level (ISMASS) is co-sponsored by SCAR, the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Climate and Cryosphere Project of WCRP.

The goals of ISMASS are to promote the research on the estimation of the mass balance of ice sheets and its contribution to sea level, to facilitate the coordination among the different international efforts focused on this field of research, to propose directions for future research in this area, to integrate the observations and modelling efforts, as well as the distribution and archiving of the corresponding data, to attract a new generation of scientists into this field of research, and to contribute to the diffusion, to society and policy makers, of the current scientific knowledge and the main achievements in this field of science.

For further details visit the ISMASS website.