(last updated: Feb 01, 2009)

The polar ice caps contain enough water to raise sea level by seventy meters above today's sea level. This page describes the various polar ice caps, investigates the melting of the much larger ice caps that covered the northern hemisphere during the last ice age, and attempts to estimate how quickly the ice caps will melt in response to rising temperatures from global warming.

The Water Cycle
Rising Sea Levels
The World's Major Ice Sheets
Ice Cap Melting Rates from Paleoclimate Data
Estimating Future Sea Level based on Climate Events in the Past
Arctic Climate and Sea Ice Extent
European Climate and the Thermohaline Circulation

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The Water Cycle - Where is the Water?

The chart below (from Science Aug 2006) shows the reservoirs of water on Earth, and the fluxes between them.  The unit are in thousands of cubic kilometers (103 km3).  Note the large quantity of water locked up in glaciers and snow compared to the other (non-ocean) water reservoirs.

The water cycle
Global hydrological fluxes (1000 km3/year) and storages (1000 km3) with natural and anthropogenic cycles are synthesized from various sources (1, 35). Big vertical arrows show total annual precipitation and evapotranspiration over land and ocean (1000 km3/year), which include annual precipitation and evapotranspiration in major landscapes (1000 km3/year) presented by small vertical arrows; parentheses indicate area (million km2). The direct groundwater discharge, which is estimated to be about 10% of total river discharge globally (6), is included in river discharge.

The oceans cover 71% of the Earth's surface (3.5 x 1014 m2), with an average depth of 4 km.  This amounts to 1.4 x 1024 g, or 1.4 x 109 km3 of water.  Most water on Earth (97.25%) is stored in the oceans, 2.05% in ice (90% of which resides in the Antarctic ice sheet, 9% or 2.5 x 106 km3 in Greenland), with the remainder stored as ground water (0.68%), while the amount of water in lakes and rivers, as soil moisture, in the biosphere and atmosphere is insignificant.  The total volume of water in the atmosphere is about 1.3 x 104 km3 [ref]

This chart may be missing most of the Earth's water. Estimates of how much water is stored in the mantle vary from one third of the ocean to one or two oceans [ref]. Water enters the mantle via the subduction due to plate tectonics, and returns to the surface by volcanic emissions. Of course, this happens over a very long time frame, so it has little interaction with the water cycle described above.

Distribution of Water Vapor in the Atmosphere

Rising Sea Levels

There are two sources of sea level change.  Eustatic change is caused by water entering or leaving the ocean (usually from ice caps), or large scale changes to the sampe of the ocean floor.  Isostatic change is caused by the local rising and falling of the coastline because of geoligical forces, and is not an indicator of global sea level.

There are three main causes of Eustatic sea level rise:
Averaged globally and throughout the entire water column, the temperature of the ocean has only risen by 0.04C since 1955. So far only the surface mixed layer with a thickness of a few hundred metres has warmed, while the average ocean depth is 3800m. [ref]

Average Sea Level Rise and Local Variations

Sea level is believed to be rising worldwide by 1.7 millimeters per year over the last century, and 2.8 0.4 mm/year this decade [Science, Aug 11, 2006 p 827]. This is due to the expansion of warming water and the added outwash from melting glaciers in Greenland, Alaska, tropical highlands and elsewhere in Antarctica.   The IPCC estimates that ocean levels rose by 10 to 20 cm in the 20th century. However, other factors such as wind patterns and ocean currents affect local sea level, so this rise is not uniform.  For example, an El Nino can temporarily change ocean levels by up to 60 cm. in some regions. The map below shows sea level changes, measured by satellite since 1980 and calculated before that. Some parts of the ocean are experiencing falling sea levels in contrast to the general trend. Note the black triangles indicate tidal guages - most of them are located in areas with the fastest rising sea level. This has led to overestimates of sea level rise in the past.
Sea Level Changes

Falling Local Sea Level near a Melting Ice Cap
An ice cap consists of a large mass of ice, which exerts a gravitational attraction on the sea water that surrounds it, causing the local sea level to rise. When some of the ice melts, the meltwater is distributed around the entire ocean, but the reduction in gravitational attraction is felt locally. Local sea level will actually fall as the ice cap melts. See [Science Mar 2002]. The map below shows the relative sea level change from the melting of the southern one-third of the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covered Canada during the last ice age. The dark blue is the region of sea level fall.


Numerical Measures Used for Ice Cap Melting and Sea Level Rise
  • One Gigatonne (Gt), or one billion tons of water = one cubic kilometer (1 km3)
  • One meter of sea level rise inundates about 1011 square meters of land, about 0.07% of the land area of the earth.
  • Water flow is measured in Sverdrups, where 1 Sv = one million cubic meters per second. The Amazon River flows at 0.3 Sv, the Gulf Stream at 20 Sv.
Gigatonne, or cubic kilometer (km3) Millimeter (mm) of Sea Level Sverdrups (Sv)
1 Gt / year 0.0028 mm / year 3.22 x 10-6 Sv
361 Gt / year 1 mm / year 0.011 Sv
31,000 Gt / year 85.9 mm / year 1 Sv

The World's Major Ice Sheets

There are three major ice sheets on Earth, which could raise sea level by 78 meters in the unlikely event that they all melted (as shown here). Annual snowfall on the ice sheets is equivalent to 6.5 mm of sea level [ref]. The present sea level is 120 m above that at the end of the last ice age, when the global average temperature was about 6 C colder than today, and large parts of the Earth were covered by massive ice sheets. Global sea level stood about 6 m higher during the last interglacial period about 120,000 years ago, but this event cannot be directly linked to any ice shelf collapse. The temperature of the earth was perhaps 4-5 C warmer than today 40 million years ago when the Antarctic ice sheet first made an appearance. Sea level at that time was about 70 meters higher than today.

Antarctica should be treated as three separate and distinct regions: the Antarctic Peninsula, East Antarctic and West Antarctica. Geologically these are three continental fragments that have collided together (see this PowerPoint slideshow), and they also have very different climates. Ice sheets on the Antarctic Peninsula are relatively small (enough ice to raise sea level by a third of a meter [ref]), and the climate there is warming rapidly (6 C since 1950). It is misleading to apply graphic examples of warming there to the rest of Antarctica. See this ice-free image.

East Antarctica (65 meters sea level equivalent) is by far the largest (up to 4 km thick) and most stable of the ice caps. It began forming over 40 million years ago and has been stable for at least 14 million years, when the global climate was significantly warmer than today. It would take a local temperature rise of 17 C to cause significant de-glaciation.  

West Antarctica (6 meters sea level equivalent) is distinguished by the fact that most of it is resting on bedrock below sea level. It is separated from the East Antarctic ice sheet by a mountaing range. A continuous West Antarctic ice sheet first appeared approximately 9 million years ago [ref]. It has suffered at least one complete collapse in the past, and has had multiple partial collapses during the present interglacial period. Even though it is close the the South Pole, this may be the ice sheet at most risk of collapse, although no major change is expected for at least 100 years. Over the last decade it has added between 0.13 and 0.16 mm/year to global sea level.

WestAntarcticaProfile.gif   The ice sheet covering West Antarctica is the last great marine ice sheet. Its bed lies below sea level and slopes down inland from the coast. The profile shown is based on Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica (11). When the ice sheet is in equilibrium; influx from snowfall (q) is balanced by outflow. A small retreat will provoke changes in both the influx and the outflow. If these changes act to promote further retreat, the ice margin is unstable.

But [Science Mar 2007] reports that sedimentation at the grounding line acts to stabilize the ice sheet. At the current rate of sea-level rise, it would take several thousand years to float the ice sheet off the bed.

Greenland (6.6 meters sea level equivalent) is the furthest ice sheet from the pole, extending below the Arctic Circle. The ice cap is presently melting around the edges (the elevation-change rate is –2.0 0.9 cm/year [ref]) and (maybe) growing in the center (6.4 0.2 cm/year) due to increased snowfall caused by warming temperatures. Most of Greenland is above sea level, and it is almost surrounded by mountains (see this ice free image), isolating the center from the melting margins.

Antarctica GreenlandIceCapChanges.jpg

change in
cm / year
Antarctica Greenland
The Ice Sheets at the Last Glacial Maximum 18,000 Years Ago

During the last glacial maximum the ice sheets covered an area of 25 million square kilometers, and were up to four kilometers thick. Sea level was about 120 meters lower than today. When they melted, and area of about 20 million km3 were submerged, about 10% of the global land mass, or an area larger than South America. See this detailed map and description.

Potential and Present Sea Level Rise from the Major Ice Sheets

Ice Sheet Volume Potential Sea Level Rise Present Rate of Loss Sea Level Equivalent References
East Antarctica 23.0 x 106 km3 67.3 meters 0  56 km3 / year
-25 Gt / year (gain)
- 0.07 mm/yr
Science Mar 2007
West Antarctica 3.8 x 106 km3 5.0 meters (partly below sea level) 148  21 km3 / year
50 Gt / year
0.4 0.2 mm/yr
0.14 mm/yr
Science Mar 2007
Greenland 2.46 x 106 km3 6.6 meters 224 41 km3 / year
239 23 km3 / year
101 16 km3 / year
0.62 mm/yr (my calculation)
0.54 mm/yr (their figure)
0.28 0.04 mm / year
Science 2005
Science Sep 2006
Science Nov 2006
Other glaciers 0.68 x 106 km3 1.9 meters 90 km3 / year 0.25 0.11 mm/yr [ref]

Although the world's glaciers only contain a fraction of the mass of ice compared to the major ice sheets, they serve as a more sensitive measure for local temperature changes. Detailed information on the changing state of  glaciers can be found at the World Glacier Mmonitoring Service.

Ice Cap Melting Rates from Paleoclimate Data

Sea level is determined by the size of the polar ice caps. As the climate cools, water from the ocean is deposited as snow, and ice caps grow as ocean levels drop, and as climate warms the ice melts and the oceans rise. At any given temperature there is an equilibrium level of ice cap size and sea level.

The table below identifies sea levels (compared to today) for several time periods with different global average temperatures. It can be seen that there is roughly 6 meters of sea level rise for each degree C of temperature rise. In a time of rapid temperature change the ice does not melt all at once; it takes many hundreds or possible several thousands of years to reach equilibrium.

Date Period Name Relative
( in ppm)
Sea Level Rise
mm / year
Sea Level
m / C
next 1000 years Anthropocene +2 to +5 C 500-1000 3.5 m ? 3.5   Maximum rate from IPCC 2001
1993–2003 Late Holocene 0 C 380 ppm 0 m 2.6  0.04 0 Measured by satellite.
past fifty years     -0.5 C     1.8   Overpeck et. al.
13,800 - 7000 years       11   The end of the last Ice Age
14.2 - 13.7 Ky Meltwater Pulse 1a       40   Science: Mar 2002, Mar 2003
21,000 Last Glacial Maximum -4 to 7 C 185 ppm –130 10 m  
16 to 30 Science, Jan 2007
130,000 Eemian Ingerglacial (MIS-5e) 1 or 2 C 290 ppm 4-6 m 20 2 to 6 See the discussion below.
425,000 to 375,000 Four Ice Ages Ago (MIS-11) about the same 300 ppm up to 20 m slow Science, July 2008, Wiki  (a)
3 million Middle Pliocene 2 or 3 C 400-500 ppm 25 10 m   5 to 10 USGS Summary
40 million Eocene, before Antarctic glaciation +5 C 60 m 12
100 million Cretaceous +8 C 1000-2000 + 80 m   10  

(a)  MIS-11 was a stable interglacial period similar to the Holocene today, except that it lasted for 50 thousand years. This extra time was all that was required to melt most of the Greenland ice cap.

SeaLevel_GlobalMeanTemperature.pngSea Level Compared to Global Mean Temperature

This chart shows four measurements of sea level at representative points of time in the past. The points are roughly in a straight line, suggesting a ratio of 100 m / 10 C, or about 10 meters of sea level rise for every degree Celsius of temperature increase. This chart give no indication of the amount of time it would take for a degree of warming to increase sea level by that amount.

The red line is an estimate of the rate of sea level rise over a shorter time scale, as discussed here.

The graph below shows that the melting rate of the world's ice caps slows down as the climate becomes warmer (and CO2 levels become higher). This is because the ice caps become smaller. The lower chart shows the rapid melting of the glaciers in the ten thousand years following the peak of the last ice age. At certain times sea level was rising about half a meter per year.

GraphSeaLevelCarbonDioxide.gif Relation between estimated atmospheric CO2 and the ice contribution to eustatic sea level indicated by geological archives and referenced to modern (pre-Industrial Era) conditions.
(A) The most recent time when no permanent ice existed on the planet (sea level = +73 m) occurred >35 million years ago when atmospheric CO2 was 1250 250 ppmV (54).
(B) In the early Oligocene (~32 million years ago), atmospheric CO2 decreased to 500 150 ppmV (54), which was accompanied by the first growth of permanent ice on the Antarctic continent, with an attendant eustatic sea-level lowering 45 5 m (55).
(C) Today.  CO2 = 280 parts per million by volume (ppmV), eustatic sea level = 0 m.  Due to global warming, we are now slowly heading toward (B).
(D) The most recent time of low atmospheric CO2 (185 ppmV) (56) corresponds to the Last Glacial Maximum 21,000 years ago, when eustatic sea level was –130 10 m.
GraphIceAgeDeglaciation.gif Time series of key variables encompassing the last interval of significant global warming during the last deglaciation, starting 20,000 years ago.

(A) Atmospheric CO2 from Antarctic ice cores.

(B) Sea surface temperature in the western equatorial Pacific based on Mg/Ca measured in planktonic foraminifera. [Is this the best proxy for the temperature actually acting on the ice sheets?]

(C) Relative sea level as derived from several sites far removed from the influence of former ice-sheet loading.  Note the two intervals with rapid melting, known as a meltwater pulse (MWP). Deglacial sea-level rise averaged 10 mm/year, but with variations including two extraordinary episodes at 19,000 years before present and 14.5 kyr B.P. when peak rates potentially exceeded 50 mm/year (79). Each of these "meltwater pulses" added the equivalent of 1.5 to 3 Greenland Ice Sheets to the oceans over a period of one to five centuries.

Estimating Future Sea Level based on Climate Events in the Past

The table below shows sea level rise for the 20th century, and projections for the 21st century. The data suggest a sea level rising rate of 3.4 millimeters/year per C of global average temperature increase. Observations from warmer times in the past show that in the long term there is 5 to 10 meters of sea level rise for each increase in global average temperature of one degree Celsius. Dividing this by the present melting rate gives a melting time of 3,000 to 9,000 years, assuming a constant melting rate. However, it is possible that melting rates will increase, so the ice cap melting time may be shorter than that.

Perhaps we can get a better idea from the previous large global warming event - the end of the ice age 20,000 years ago, which is shown in the table above.  A warming of 5 degrees over 10,000 years caused an essentially linear sea level rise over the same time period. [But why is there no sign of the Younger Dryas cooling 12,900 – 11,500 years before present, which occured in the northern hemisphere where the major ice sheets were.  The equatorial Pacific warming looks nothing like the Greenland Ice Core record.]

Sea_Level_20th_Century.gif Rate of Sea Level Rise in the 20th Century

Rate of sea-level rise obtained from tide gauge observations (red line) and computed from global mean temperature (dark blue line). The light blue band indicates the statistical error (one SD) of the simple linear prediction (15).
Sea Level in the 20th Century

Sea level relative to 1990 obtained from observations (red line, smoothed) and computed from global mean temperature (blue line). The red squares mark the unsmoothed, annual sea-level data.
Sea_Level_For_21st_Century.gif Projections of Sea Level Rise for the 21st Century

Past sea level and sea-level projections from 1990 to 2100 based on global mean temperature projections of the IPCC TAR. The gray uncertainty range spans the range of temperature rise of 1.4 to 5.8 C, having been combined with the best statistical fit. The dashed gray lines show the added uncertainty due to the statistical error of the fit. Colored dashed lines are the individual scenarios as shown in (1); the light blue line is the A1FI scenario, and the yellow line is the B1 scenario.

In the last interglacial period, about 120,000 years ago, sea level was probably 5 or 6 meters higher than today. There are suggestions that it was still higher during the interglacial 400,000 years ago (Hearty et al., Geology, 27, 375, 1999). But to find a planet 2 or 3C warmer than now, as it will be this century in “business-as-usual” scenarios, we must go back to the middle Pliocene, about 3 million years ago. At that time sea level was 25 10 m greater than today. [ref]

On the other hand, conditions during the Eemian were very different than today. As seen from this chart of temperature anomolies caused by the Milankovitch cycles, during the Eemian solar forcing in the polar regions during the critical spring period was more than 60 watts per meter above normal. Compare this with 3.7 W/m2 of direct forcing from the doubling of carbon dioxide levels expected at the end of the 21st century. It is quite possible that this was the cause of the extensive melting in the polar regions, and the one or two degrees of global temperature rise was mainly a side effect.

There is also a problem of using the Pliocene to predict the effects of a similar warming today: The Pliocene was a time of cooling and ice cap formation, while the near future is a time of warming and ice cap melting. An ice cap creates its own regional climate by reducing local temperature. For example, if you removed all of the ice from Greenland, a new ice cap would not form at today's temperatures. This implies that three degrees of warming will leave a much larger ice cap than the Pliocene started with, so sea level increases may not be nearly so high.

James Hansen thinks ice cap melting rates are a lot higher:
Some ice sheet modelers believe that it requires millennia for ice sheets to respond to forcing. I’m a modeler too, but I rate data higher than models. Numerous recent studies show that when ice sheets begin to disintegrate sea level commonly rises at rates of a few meters per century. [These are not the ice sheets that exist today.] Perhaps even more important, several independent studies with independent methods, show that sea level does not change gradually with the Earth’s orbital elements. Rather it exhibits rapid changes of 10 meters or more on sub-orbital time scales. I refer, for example, to studies of Siddall et al. [also ref], Potter et al., Thompson and Goldstein, to name a few. Ice sheet models that move lethargically on millennial time scales do not produce these real-world changes, because they are missing critical physics. [ref]

Greenland Ice Cap Melting for Various Carbon Dioxide Levels

Future evolution of the Greenland Ice Sheet calculated from a 3D ice-sheet model forced by three greenhouse gas stabilization scenarios. The warming scenarios correspond to the average of seven IPCC models in which the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration stabilizes at levels between 550 and 1000 ppm after a few centuries (4) and is kept constant after that. For a sustained average summer warming of 7.3C (1000 ppm), the Greenland Ice Sheet is shown to disappear within 3000 years, raising sea level by about 7.5 m. For lower carbon dioxide concentrations, melting proceeds at a slower rate, but even in a world with twice as much CO2 (550 ppm or a 3.7 C summer warming) the ice sheet will eventually melt away apart from some residual glaciation over the eastern mountains.

Other Notes:

Arctic Climate and Sea Ice Extent

The Dynamics of Sea Ice

As with most substances, water becomes denser with decreasing temperature.  But for fresh water this process stops at 4C, and as water cools further toward its freezing point, it expands to become less dense. And unlike many substances, frozen water is less dense than its liquid form, thus it floats.

Ocean water, with a 3.5% salinity, freezes at −1.9 C. When it freezes, the ice is salt free. Salt water also does not have the density reversal of fresh water. The cold water below the ice tends to sink, replaced by warmer water from below. The salt expelled from the ice increases the density. also causing the water the sink. This process brings warmer water in contact with the bottom of the ice, reducing the rate at which the water freezes. For this reason, sea ice does not get more than a few meters thick. [ref]

Climate Change in the Arctic since 1920

Because sea ice is floating on the ocean, the shrinking of sea ice has little effect on sea level. Sea ice is mostly fresh water, so melting does reduce the salinity of the ocean. Perhaps more important, the very reflective ice surface is replaced with the strongly absorbing open ocean, which causes further warming to occur. The following maps show climate change in the Arctic region since 1920.

Surface Air Temperatures (a-b) 1920-39, winter and summer, respectively.  A strong warming trend is seen in the northern Arctc mainly during the winter season.
(c-d) 1945-64, winter and summer, respectively.  This is a period of significant cooling.

(e-f) 1980-1999, winter and summer, respectively.  Warming is more global in scope during both seasons.
Surface air temperature (SAT) trends north of 30N in the winter (NDJFMA) and summer (MJJASO) half-years for 20-year periods representing warming, cooling and warming in the 20th century:

The following two graphs are taken from the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment paper.  The temperature graph shows a linear rise from 1900 to 1940, a drop from 1940 to 1970, and a rise from 1970 to 2000.  The slope of both the rise and fall is about the same.  The sea ice graph shows no change between 1900 and mid century, then what looks like a linear decline.  The decline in summer starts around 1950, while the winter decline takes until 1970 to begin. But,
Arctic Temperatures
Arctic Sea Ice


These maps show the difference between “normal” sea ice extent (long-term mean), and the year indicated. The long-term average minimum extent contour (1979-2000) is in magenta. The ice extent for each year is shown by the edge of the colored region; within that extent, color bands show differing levels of sea ice concentration. Blue indicates areas where concentration is more than the long-term mean; red shows areas where concentration is less than the long-term mean. The 2005 map shows a marked reduction in extent over the past four years, all of which were also below average.

In 2002 and 2003, the ice pack also experienced much lower concentrations during the minimum, especially true north of Alaska. However, the ice cover has been much more compact during the minimums of 2004 and 2005, yielding small negative or even positive ice concentration anomalies within the ice pack.

Sea Ice extent is a measure of the area that contains at least 15 percent ice. Ice concentration is the fraction of the actual area covered by ice compared to the total area, measured in terms of percentage ice cover. The satellite does not pass directly over the North Pole; this lack of data is indicated by the gray circle in each image.

Projections of Future Arctic Sea Ice Extent

The expected time until the Arctic Ocean is ice free in summer is decreasing rapidly:

IPCC AR4:  Sea ice is projected to shrink in both the Arctic and Antarctic under all SRES scenarios. In some projections, arctic late-summer sea ice disappears almost entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.

Arctic_Sea_Ice_2080.gif   Spatial pattern of the percent of IPCC AR4 model simulations (SRES A1B scenario) with at least 15% ice concentration for March (left) and September (right), averaged over the decade 2075 to 2084. For example, a value of 60% at a given location means that 60% of simulations predicted sea ice. Results are based on 11 models with realistic 20th-century September sea-ice extent.

European Climate and the Thermohaline Circulation

European Warmth due more to Wind than Ocean Currents

Three factors make Europe’s winters milder than those of eastern North America at the same latitude. Winds blowing toward Europe from the west pick up heat from the waters of the North Atlantic, which retain far more summer heat than the interior of the North American continent. Those balmy winds give Europe a milder, maritime climate relative to North America’s more extreme, continental climate. The Gulf Stream—the tail end of a great “conveyor belt” of currents carrying warm waters from the Southern Hemisphere—also contributes heat to the westerly winds and thus to Europe. And those westerly winds tend not to blow straight out of the west. They arrive over eastern North America from more out of the frigid north, intensifying the continentality of eastern North America’s climate. In contrast, Atlantic winds tend to blow more from the warmer climes of the south before reaching Europe.

The world’s winds carry five times more heat out of the tropics than do ocean currents.  80% of the heat that cross-Atlantic winds picked up was summer heat briefly stored in the ocean rather than heat carried in by the Gulf Stream.

The ocean heat transport of the Gulf Stream was crucial to warming Scandinavia and keeping the far northern North Atlantic free of ice. It also warmed latitudes south of Scandinavia by 3C on both sides of the Atlantic. But the wintertime temperature contrast between Europe south of Scandinavia and eastern North America was still about 15C. [ref]

The Thermohaline Circulation


A highly simplified cartoon of the global thermohaline circulation (sometimes called the ‘conveyor belt’) is shown in the figure above. Near-surface waters (red lines) flow towards three main deep-water formation regions (yellow ovals) — in the northern North Atlantic, the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea — and recirculate at depth (deep currents shown in blue, bottom currents in purple; green shading indicates salinity above 36‰ [‰ means parts per mil, or in this case 3.6 percent], blue shading indicates salinity below 34‰). A recent estimate of the rate of deep-water formation is 152 Sv [a unit of flow expained above] in the North Atlantic and 216 Sv in the Southern Ocean. Northward heat transport into the northern Atlantic peaks at 1.30.1 PW (1 PW=1015 W) in the subtropics; this heat transport warms the northern Atlantic regional air temperatures by up to 10 C over the ocean with the effect declining inland.
Ocean Salinity


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