Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Highs and lows: height changes in the ice sheets mapped


Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany have used satellite data to map elevation and elevation changes in both Greenland and Antarctica.

The new maps are the most complete published to date, from a single satellite mission. They also show the ice sheets are losing volume at an unprecedented rate of about 500 cubic kilometres per year. The results are published today in The Cryosphere, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

New elevation models of Greenland and Antarctica derived from CryoSat-2. Areas in red are higher than areas in blue. Helm et al., The Cryosphere, 2014

“The new elevation maps are snapshots of the current state of the ice sheets,” says lead-author Veit Helm of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), in Bremerhaven, Germany. The snapshots are very accurate, to just a few metres in height, and cover close to 16 million km2 of the area of the ice sheets. “This is 500,000 square kilometres more than any previous elevation model from altimetry – about the size of Spain.”

Satellite altimetry missions measure height by bouncing radar or laser pulses off the surface of the ice sheets and surrounding water. The team derived the maps, which show how height differs across each of the ice sheets, using just over a year’s worth of data collected in 2012 by the altimeter on board the European Space Agency satellite CryoSat-2. These 'digital elevation models’ incorporate a total of 7.5 million elevation measurements for Greenland and 61 million for Antarctica.

In addition to showing the highs and lows of the ice sheets at present, the study also highlights how the elevation has changed over the 2011–2014 period. Ice sheets gain mass through snowfall and lose it due to melting and accelerating glaciers, which carry ice from the interior of the ice sheet to the ocean. The researchers say it’s important to understand how ice thickness across Greenland and Antarctica has changed to model ice movements, and find out just how much ice sheets contribute to sea level rise.

The team derived the elevation change maps using a staggering 200 million data points for Antarctica and 14.3 million for Greenland collected by CryoSat-2 over the three-year period. The maps published in The Cryosphere reveal that Greenland alone is reducing in volume by about 375 cubic kilometres per year.

The two ice sheets combined are thinning at a rate of 500 cubic kilometres per year, the highest rate observed since altimetry satellite records began about 20 years ago. The researchers say the ice-sheets annual contribution to sea level rise doubled since 2009.

“Since 2009, the volume loss in Greenland has increased by a factor of about 2, and in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet by a factor of 3,” says AWI glaciologist Angelika Humbert, another of the study’s authors. Both the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Antarctic Peninsula, on the far west of the continent, are rapidly losing volume. By contrast, East Antarctica is gaining volume, though at a moderate rate that doesn’t compensate the losses on the other side of the continent.

The areas where the researchers detected the largest elevation changes were Jakobshavn Isbrae (Jakobshavn Glacier) in Greenland – recently found to be moving ice into the ocean faster than any other ice-sheet glacier – and Pine Island Glacier (PIG) in Antarctica. The new study confirms that PIG, like other glaciers in the West Antarctic, has been thinning rapidly in recent years.

The researchers highlight the role of CryoSat-2 and its radar altimeter (also known as SIRAL) in producing the height maps, particularly in regions where the surface slopes steeply and elevation changes are more pronounced. “These areas can be difficult to measure, but SIRAL enabled us to continuously observe the surface of the ice sheets with high precision and dense coverage, better than any previous system,” says Helm.

Please mention the name of the publication (The Cryosphere) if reporting on this story and, if reporting online, include a link to the paper (TBA) or to the journal website (

*More information*
This research, funded by the German Ministry of Economics and Technology, is presented in the paper ‘Elevation and elevation change of Greenland and Antarctica derived from CryoSat-2’ to appear in the EGU open access journal The Cryosphere on 20 August 2014.

The scientific article is available online, free of charge, from the publication date onwards, at *A pre-print version of the paper and accompanying images are available for download at*

The team is composed of Veit Helm, Angelika Humbert and Heinrich Miller from the Glaciology Section of the Alfred Wegener Institute, the Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany.

The *European Geosciences Union (* is Europe’s premier geosciences union, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in the Earth, planetary, and space sciences for the benefit of humanity, worldwide. It is a non-profit interdisciplinary learned association of scientists founded in 2002. The EGU has a current portfolio of 16 diverse scientific journals, which use an innovative open access format, and organises a number of topical meetings, and education and outreach activities. Its annual General Assembly is the largest and most prominent European geosciences event, attracting over 11,000 scientists from all over the world. The meeting’s sessions cover a wide range of topics, including volcanology, planetary exploration, the Earth’s internal structure and atmosphere, climate, energy, and resources. The EGU 2015 General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria, from 12 to 17 April 2015. For information regarding the press centre at the meeting and media registration, please check closer to the time of the conference.

If you wish to receive our press releases via email, please use the Press Release Subscription Form at Subscribed journalists and other members of the media receive EGU press releases under embargo (if applicable) 24 hours in advance of public dissemination.

Weitere Informationen:

Dr. Bárbara Ferreira | European Geosciences Union

Further reports about: AWI Antarctic Antarctica CryoSat-2 EGU Geosciences Greenland Polar satellite

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Rapid plankton growth in ocean seen as sign of carbon dioxide loading
27.11.2015 | Johns Hopkins University

nachricht Revealing glacier flow with animated satellite images
26.11.2015 | European Geosciences Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Climate study finds evidence of global shift in the 1980s

Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.

Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...

Im Focus: Innovative Photovoltaics – from the Lab to the Façade

Fraunhofer ISE Demonstrates New Cell and Module Technologies on its Outer Building Façade

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...

Im Focus: Lactate for Brain Energy

Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.

In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...

Im Focus: Laser process simulation available as app for first time

In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.

Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...

Im Focus: Quantum Simulation: A Better Understanding of Magnetism

Heidelberg physicists use ultracold atoms to imitate the behaviour of electrons in a solid

Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Fraunhofer’s Urban Futures Conference: 2 days in the city of the future

25.11.2015 | Event News

Gluten oder nicht Gluten? Überempfindlichkeit auf Weizen kann unterschiedliche Ursachen haben

17.11.2015 | Event News

Art Collection Deutsche Börse zeigt Ausstellung „Traces of Disorder“

21.10.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Siemens to supply 126 megawatts to onshore wind power plants in Scotland

27.11.2015 | Press release

Two decades of training students and experts in tracking infectious disease

27.11.2015 | Life Sciences

Coming to a monitor near you: A defect-free, molecule-thick film

27.11.2015 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>