Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets

Indicator Specification
Indicator codes: CLIM 009
Created 23 Nov 2016 Published 20 Dec 2016 Last modified 20 Dec 2016, 02:30 PM
Cumulative ice mass loss and sea-level equivalent from Greenland

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)

Rationale

Justification for indicator selection

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are important in the global climate system. This indicator documents recent change in the ice sheets and discusses the consequences of projections. Note that the land-based, permanent Antarctic ice sheet should not be confused with Antarctic sea ice, which covers the ocean and strongly changes with the seasons. Together, the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets contain more than 99 % of the freshwater ice on Earth.

The change in the amount of ice in the ice sheets, known as the ‘mass balance’, is an important indicator that can document loss of ice. An increased rate of mass loss results in a faster rise in the global mean sea level. A net mass loss of 362.5 billion tonnes corresponds to a 1 mm sea level equivalent. Owing to gravitational forces, the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet contributes relatively more to sea level rise in the Northern Hemisphere than the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. In addition, melt water from the ice sheets reduces the salinity of the surrounding ocean, with potential feedback to the climate system.

An upper layer of fresher water may reduce the formation of dense deep water, one of the mechanisms driving global ocean circulation. Recent freshening in the vicinity of Greenland has contributed to changes that may weaken the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, with cooler winters and summers around the North Atlantic a potential consequence, but uncertainties are still significant.

Scientific references

  • IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp.
  • AMAP (2011): Climate Change and the Cryosphere. AMAP (2011) Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA): Climate Change and the Cryosphere. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), Oslo.

Indicator definition

  • Cumulative ice mass loss and sea-level equivalent from Greenland

Units

  • Gigatonnes (Gt)

Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013, the European Commission (EC) presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package. This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU Adaptation Strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe.

One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which will be achieved by bridging the knowledge gap and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT has been developed jointly by the EC and the EEA to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies.

Further objectives include Promoting adaptation in key vulnerablesectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies and Promoting action by Member States. Most EU Member States have already adopted national adaptation strategies and many have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation. The EC also supports adaptation in cities through the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy initiative.

In September 2016, the EC presented an indicative roadmap for the evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy by 2018.

In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7th EU Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources.’ Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.

Targets

No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • Climate-ADAPT: Mainstreaming adaptation in EU sector policies
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: National adaptation strategies
    Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
  • DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
    Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives in the future. This web portal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
  • EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In April 2013, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it enhances the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.

Key policy question

Are the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets losing mass, and what is the effect on global sea level?

Methodology

Methodology for indicator calculation

For the estimation of the polar ice sheets mass balance, an ensemble of satellite altimetry, interferometry, and gravimetry data sets using common geographical regions, time intervals, and models of surface mass balance and glacial isostatic adjustment has been used.

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable

Methodology references

  • Shepherd et al. (2012): A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance. Shepherd, A., Ivins, E. R., A, G., Barletta, V. R., Bentley, M. J., Bettadpur, S., Briggs, K. H., Bromwich, D. H., Forsberg, R., Galin, N., Horwath, M., Jacobs, S., Joughin, I., King, M. A., Lenaerts, J. T. M., Li, J., Ligtenberg, S. R. M., Luckman, A., Luthcke, S. B. et al., 2012, 'A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance',Science338(6111), 1183–1189 (DOI: 10.1126/science.1228102).

Data specifications

EEA data references

  • No datasets have been specified here.

Data sources in latest figures

Uncertainties

Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable

Data sets uncertainty

Data on the cryosphere vary significantly with regard to availability and quality. Snow and ice cover have been monitored globally since satellite measurements started in the 1970s. Improved technology allows for more detailed observations and observations of a higher resolution. Direct historical area-wide data on the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets cover about 20 years, but reconstructions give a 200 000-year perspective.

Continuous efforts are being made to improve knowledge of the cryosphere. Scenarios for the future development of key components of the cryosphere have recently become available from the CMIP5 project, which has provided climate change projections for the IPCC AR5. Owing to their economic importance, considerable efforts have also been devoted to improving real-time monitoring of snow cover and sea ice.

Rationale uncertainty

Not applicable

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel

Ownership

European Environment Agency (EEA)

Identification

Indicator code
CLIM 009
Specification
Version id: 4

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 4 years

Classification

DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)

Related content

Data references used

Latest figures and vizualizations

Relevant policy documents

European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100