Storm-driven ocean swells have been driving a catastrophic disintegration of Antarctic ice shelves over recent decades, by delivering fatal blows to pre-existing fractures.

Reduced sea ice coverage since the late 1980s has led to increased exposure of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula to ocean swells, causing them to flex and break.

New insights into the process, led by an international team including the University of Otago's Professor Vernon Squire, have been published today in the major scientific journal Nature.

"Sea ice acts as a protective buffer to ice shelves, by dampening destructive ocean swells before they reach the ice shelf edge," explained Dr Rob Massom, of the Australian Antarctic Division and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre.

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"But where there is loss of sea ice, storm-generated ocean swells can easily reach the exposed ice shelf, causing the first few kilometres of its outer margin to flex."

Over time, this flexing enlarged pre-existing fractures, until long thin "sliver" icebergs broke away or calved from the shelf front.

"This is like the 'straw that broke the camel's back', triggering the runaway collapse of large areas of ice shelves weakened by pre-existing fracturing and decades of surface flooding."

Study co-author Dr Luke Bennetts, from the University of Adelaide's School of Mathematical Sciences, said the finding highlights the need for sea ice and ocean waves to be included in ice sheet modelling.

This would allow scientists to more accurately forecast the fate of the remaining ice shelves and better predict the contribution of Antarctica's ice sheet to sea level rise, as climate changes.

"The contribution of the Antarctic Ice Sheet is currently the greatest source of uncertainty in projections of global mean sea level rise," Bennetts said.

Totten Glacier in Antarctica. Photo / Esmee van Wijk/Australian Antarctic Division
Totten Glacier in Antarctica. Photo / Esmee van Wijk/Australian Antarctic Division

"Ice shelves fringe about three quarters of the Antarctic coast and they play a crucially important role in moderating sea level rise by buttressing and slowing the movement of glacial ice from the interior of the continent to the ocean."

"While ice shelf disintegration doesn't directly raise sea level because they are already floating, the resulting acceleration of the tributary glaciers behind the ice shelf, into the Southern Ocean, does."

Study co-author, Dr Phil Reid, from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, said the research identified a previously under-appreciated link between sea ice loss and ice shelf stability.

"Our study underlines the importance of understanding the mechanisms driving these sea ice trends, particularly in regions where sea ice acts as a protective buffer against ocean processes."

Sliver icebergs calve off the Larsen B Ice Shelf on February 17, 2002 while melt ponds dot the surface. Photo / NSIDC/NASA/AAD
Sliver icebergs calve off the Larsen B Ice Shelf on February 17, 2002 while melt ponds dot the surface. Photo / NSIDC/NASA/AAD
By March 7, 2002, most of the Larsen B Ice Shelf has disintegrated. Photo / NSIDC/NASA/AAD
By March 7, 2002, most of the Larsen B Ice Shelf has disintegrated. Photo / NSIDC/NASA/AAD

The discovery comes after the international research team, from Australia, the United States and New Zealand, combined satellite images and surface and ocean wave data with modelling, to analyse five major ice shelf disintegrations, between 1995 and 2009.

These included the abrupt and rapid losses of 1600sq km of ice from the Larsen A Ice Shelf in 1995, 3320sq km from the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002, and 1450sq km from the Wilkins Ice Shelf in 2009.

Each disintegration event occurred during periods when sea ice was significantly reduced or absent, and when ocean waves were large.

The sheared area of the northeast side of Scar Inelet Ice Shelf - the largest remnant of the Larsen B Ice Shelf which disintegrated in 2002. Photo / Ted Scambos/ NSIDC/AAD
The sheared area of the northeast side of Scar Inelet Ice Shelf - the largest remnant of the Larsen B Ice Shelf which disintegrated in 2002. Photo / Ted Scambos/ NSIDC/AAD

In only a matter of days, the collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002 removed an area of ice shelf that had been in place for the previous 11,500 years.

Removal of the ice shelf buttressing effect also caused a three to eight-fold increase in the discharge of glacial ice, behind the shelf, into the ocean, in the year following disintegration.

Also published today were new findings showing ice losses from Antarctica had increased sea levels by almost 8mm since 1992, with two-fifths of this rise coming in the past five years alone.