Ice Sheet Stability

Photo: Antarctic ice sheet

The NERC Ice Sheet Stability research programme is a five year programme with a budget of £7·4 million over the period 2010-2015. The goal of this programme is to improve fundamental understanding of the interaction of ice with the oceans and the resulting ice sheet response, and to incorporate this new understanding into predictive models.

This programme comprises two closely linked components: ocean forcing of the ice sheet and ice sheet response to ocean forcing. The programme will also make significant contribution to the Living With Environmental Change programme.

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The Ice Sheet Stability research programme directly relates to the delivery of the NERC strategy (in particular the climate system and Earth system science themes).

The great ice sheets of Antarctica contain major reservoirs of freshwater. Changes in these ice sheets can induce large changes in sea level and in the freshwater flux to the oceans, which in turn can affect the ocean circulation and climate.

Many factors contribute to sea level rise, but the IPCC AR4 identified the cryosphere as the largest source of uncertainty in predictions of future sea level rise over the 50-200 year time horizon. There is evidence from the paleo record of rapid changes in sea level that imply rapid changes in the Antarctic ice sheets, and the controls on such changes are not well understood.

Limitations in our understanding of ice sheet dynamics mean that ice sheet models currently are unable to adequately describe contemporary ice sheet loss rates, as measured for instance by satellites, or provide confident prediction of future loss rates on time scales of the next few hundred years. Such predictions are important for coastal planners concerned with sea defences and for climate modellers concerned with the behaviour of the meridional overturning circulation.

Small glacial systems contribute significantly to current sea level rise and freshwater inputs to the oceans, but their small mass constrain their relative importance on the 200 year time scale compared to the major ice sheets of Greenland (GIS) and the Antarctic.

This programme has a focus on the Antarctic, and specifically on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) due to the recent acceleration of ice loss and the unstable nature of its grounding line.

The programme aims to deliver an improved prediction of ice sheet melt rates over time scales of up to 200 years, through a major improvement of our understanding of the fundamental processes regulating ice movement and loss, leading to improved predictive models. These improvements will then be available to modellers for use in ocean circulation and sea-level-rise models.

The WAIS is the main area of ice loss within the Antarctic. The ice sheet rests on a bed 2·2km below sea level, a situation that leads to potential instability of the ice sheet with warming.

The region is too cold for atmospheric-warming-driven melting to be an important cause of loss. Rather it is the melting induced by warm ocean water flowing under the ice sheet that represents the main driver, although this will in part be atmospherically driven. Therefore the goal of this programme is to improve fundamental understanding of the interaction of ice with the oceans and the resulting ice sheet response, and incorporate this new understanding into predictive models.

This programme therefore has two closely linked components:

  1. ocean forcing of the ice sheet;
  2. ice sheet response to ocean forcing.


2010 - 2015

Can I apply for a grant?

No, not at this time. All proposals have been funded.


The Ice Sheet Stability research programme has an allocation of £7·4 million (total cost to NERC). The Ocean Forcing component is approximately £3 million, the Ice Sheet Response component is approximately £3·6 million, with Programme Management costs of approximately £800,000.

Programmes awards

Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web.

View details of funded applications - external link

Membership of the Expert Groups for the Ocean Forcing and Ice Sheet Response components of the programme have been finalised.

Each Expert Group will support the development of their component in the science and implementation plans which will form the basis of an announcement of opportunity for the programme.

Further information on the remit of the Expert Groups can found be in the Expert Group invitation - external link.

Ocean Forcing Expert Group

  • Professor Tony Payne - Chair
  • Dr Mark Brandon
  • Professor Karen Heywood
  • Dr Adrian Jenkins
  • Professor Colm O'Cofaigh
  • Dr Alberto Naveira Garabato

Ice Sheet Response Expert Group

  • Dr Mark Brandon - Chair
  • Professor Michael Bentley
  • Dr Rob Bingham
  • Professor Tavi Murray
  • Professor Tony Payne
  • Dr Jeff Ridley
  • Professor Andrew Shepherd

The following documents give more information about this programme.

Implementation plan (PDF, 104KB)

Science plan (PDF, 92KB)