Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America ( IF 9.412 ) Pub Date : 2020-09-14 , DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1912890117 Stef Lhermitte, Sainan Sun, Christopher Shuman, Bert Wouters, Frank Pattyn, Jan Wuite, Etienne Berthier, Thomas Nagler
Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier in the Amundsen Sea Embayment are among the fastest changing outlet glaciers in West Antarctica with large consequences for global sea level. Yet, assessing how much and how fast both glaciers will weaken if these changes continue remains a major uncertainty as many of the processes that control their ice shelf weakening and grounding line retreat are not well understood. Here, we combine multisource satellite imagery with modeling to uncover the rapid development of damage areas in the shear zones of Pine Island and Thwaites ice shelves. These damage areas consist of highly crevassed areas and open fractures and are first signs that the shear zones of both ice shelves have structurally weakened over the past decade. Idealized model results reveal moreover that the damage initiates a feedback process where initial ice shelf weakening triggers the development of damage in their shear zones, which results in further speedup, shearing, and weakening, hence promoting additional damage development. This damage feedback potentially preconditions these ice shelves for disintegration and enhances grounding line retreat. The results of this study suggest that damage feedback processes are key to future ice shelf stability, grounding line retreat, and sea level contributions from Antarctica. Moreover, they underline the need for incorporating these feedback processes, which are currently not accounted for in most ice sheet models, to improve sea level rise projections.