Ice sheet modeling

Estimating current and future ice sheet contributions to sea level rise is a very active area of research, and despite recent advances in ice sheet modeling, key controlling aspects of ice dynamics, such as basal friction or ice hardness, are still poorly understood and poorly constrained. Ice sheet models will not be reliable unless we better understand these physical processes and include them in numerical models.

Data assimilation techniques such as inverse methods, that combine ice sheet modeling and surface observations, provide the tools to tackle these questions. We have used inverse methods to investigate the patterns of basal friction under grounded ice using surface velocities derived from Satellite interferometry (Morlighem et al. 2011). More recently, we have applied these techniques at the scale of Antarctica (Morlighem et al. 2013) and we discovered that basal sliding is widespread beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. This suggests that coastal perturbations may be transmitted further inland than expected.


Our group has co-founded the Ice Sheet System Model in partnership between UC Irvine and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. ISSM is a large scale, high-resolution, massively parallelized finite element model dedicated to ice sheet modeling and is our primary tool to address the science questions we are interested in.



Calving Dynamics

Warmer ocean waters trigger ice-front retreats of marine-terminating glaciers, and the corresponding loss in resistive stress leads to glacier acceleration and thinning. We have implemented a level-set based method to track moving boundaries within our ice sheet model. More work is needed to find a universal calving law, the holy grail of ice sheet modelers…

Bed topography inferred from mass conservation

We have devised a new method to infer the bed topography beneath the ice sheets at high resolution (150 m) based on the conservation of mass and optimization. The traditional method for interpolating ice thickness data from airborne radar sounding surveys onto regular grids is to employ geostatistical techniques such as kriging. While this approach provides continuous and seamless maps of ice thickness, it generates products that are not consistent with ice flow dynamics and are impractical for high-resolution ice flow simulations. Recently, we mapped the entire coast of Greenland (Morlighem et al. 2014) and showed that glaciers flow down well-defined, deep topographic channels with deep narrow depressions within mountain block landscapes, suggesting that the ice sheet will be vulnerable to more rapid retreat in the coming century than previously thought.