Many ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula have retreated in the light of ongoing climatic warming. The dramatic break-ups of the Larsen A and B ice shelves in 1995 and 2002 have seen particularly pronounced scientific and public interest. Many outlet glaciers accelerated as the buttressing ice-shelf force was removed, increasing the volumes of ice discharged from the ice sheet interior into the ocean. This ‘domino effect’ highlights the importance of ice shelves in controlling sea level rise. As climatic warming is progressing southwards on the Antarctic Peninsula, scientific focus has been shifting to the southern neighbour, the Larsen C ice shelf. This ice shelf is one of the largest in Antarctica and is buttressing a considerable number of outlet glaciers that evacuate large quantities of ice from the Antarctic interior. Identifying the present and future stability of the Larsen C ice shelf is therefore a global research priority.
A multi-disciplinary, multi-national research program is currently underway on the Larsen C ice shelf to elucidate the physical properties and processes that govern its stability, and to predict future stability as forced by climatic warming. The fundamental hypothesis of the SOLIS project is that mechanically softer ‘flow stripes’ of ice originate at mountains fronts in the vicinity of the ice-shelf grounding line. These flow stripes are sandwiched between mechanically stiffer units of glacier ice that originates in the ice-sheet interior. Satellite and structural glaciological observations suggest that the softer flow stripes critically control rates of rift propagation and thus represent a governing control on ice shelf stability.
SOLIS aims to integrate the field geophysical and glaciological findings with satellite data to constrain a multi-dimensional numerical model of ice-shelf fracture mechanics to infer the present and predict the future stability of the Larsen C ice shelf.