Space Science Reviews

, Volume 108, Issue 1, pp 81–93

II: SOLID EARTH PHYSICS: Long Wavelength Sea Level and Solid Surface Perturbations Driven by Polar Ice Mass Variations: Fingerprinting Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheet Flux


  • M. E. Tamtsiea
    • University of Colorado
  • J. X. Mitrovica
    • Department of PhysicsUniversity of Toronto
  • J. L. Davis
    • Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
  • G. A. Milne
    • Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

DOI: 10.1023/A:1026178014950

Cite this article as:
Tamtsiea, M.E., Mitrovica, J.X., Davis, J.L. et al. Space Science Reviews (2003) 108: 81. doi:10.1023/A:1026178014950


Rapid ice mass variations within the large polar ice sheets lead to distinct and highly non-uniform sea-level changes that have come to be known as ‘sea-level fingerprints’. We explore in detail the physics of these fingerprints by decomposing the total sea-level change into contributions from radial perturbations in the two bounding surfaces: the geoid (or sea surface) and the solid surface. In the case of a melting event, the sea-level fingerprint is characterized by a sea-level fall in the near-field of the ice complex and a gradually increasing sea-level rise (from 0.0 to 1.3 times the eustatic value) as one considers sites at progressively greater distances (up to ≈ 90° or so) from the ice sheet. The far-field redistribution is largely driven by the relaxation of the sea-surface as the gravitational pull of the ablating ice sheet weakens. The near-field sea-level fall is a consequence of both this relaxation and ocean-plus-ice unloading of the solid surface. We argue that the fingerprints provide a natural explanation for geographic variations in sea-level (e.g., tide gauge, satellite) observations. Therefore, they furnish a methodology for extending traditional analyses of these observations to estimate not only the globally averaged sea-level rate but also the individual contributions to this rate (i.e., the sources).

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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2003