Warping of Planet’s Crust: Melting of Polar Ice Shifting Earth Itself, Not Just Sea Levels

Research by new Ph.D. finds warping of planet’s crust, with far-reaching effects.

The melting of polar ice is not only shifting the levels of our oceans, it is changing the planet Earth itself. Newly minted Ph.D. Sophie Coulson and her colleagues explained in a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters that, as glacial ice from Greenland, Antarctica, and the Arctic Islands melts, Earth’s crust beneath these land masses warps, an impact that can be measured hundreds and perhaps thousands of miles away.

“Scientists have done a lot of work directly beneath ice sheets and glaciers,” said Coulson, who did her work in the Harvard University, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and received her doctorate in May from the Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “So they knew that it would define the region where the glaciers are, but they hadn’t realized that it was global in scale.”

By analyzing satellite data on melt from 2003 to 2018 and studying changes in Earth’s crust, Coulson and her colleagues were able to measure the shifting of the crust horizontally. Their research, which was highlighted in Nature, found that in some places the crust was moving more horizontally than it was lifting.  In addition to the surprising extent of its reach, the Nature brief pointed out, this research provides a potentially new way to monitor modern ice mass changes.

Sophie Coulson

Sophie Coulson and colleagues analyzed satellite data on melting glaciers and its impact on the Earth’s crust. Credit: Courtesy of Sophie Coulson

To understand how the ice melt affects what is beneath it, Coulson suggested imagining the system on a small scale: “Think of a wooden board floating on top of a tub of water. When you push the board down, you would have the water beneath moving down. If you pick it up, you’ll see the water moving vertically to fill that space.”

These movements have an impact on the continued melting. “In some parts of Antarctica, for example, the rebounding of the crust is changing the slope of the bedrock under the ice sheet, and that can affect the ice dynamics,” said Coulson, who worked in the lab of Jerry Mitrovica, the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science.

The current melting is only the most recent movement researchers are observing. “The Arctic is an interesting region because, as well as the modern-day ice sheets, we also have a lasting signal from the last ice age,” Coulson explained. An ice sheet once covered what is now Northern Europe and Scandinavia during the Pleistocene Epoch, the ice age that started about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until roughly 11,000 years ago. “The Earth is actually still rebounding from that ice melting.”

“On recent timescales, we think of the Earth as an elastic structure, like a rubber band, whereas on timescales of thousands of years, the Earth acts more like a very slow-moving fluid,” said Coulson, explaining how these newer repercussions come to be overlaid on the older reverberations. “Ice age processes take a really, really long time to play out, and therefore we can still see the results of them today.”

The implications of this movement are far-reaching. “Understanding all of the factors that cause movement of the crust is really important for a wide range of Earth science problems. For example, to accurately observe tectonic motions and earthquake activity, we need to be able to separate out this motion generated by modern-day ice-mass loss,” she said.

Coulson is continuing her research as a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as part of a climate group that works on future projections of ice sheets and ocean dynamics.

Glenn Antony Milne, professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Ottawa, explained that understanding the extent of this movement clarifies all studies of the planet’s crust. “Sophie’s work is important because it is the first to show that recent mass loss of ice sheets and glaciers causes 3D motion of the Earth’s [solid] surface that is greater in magnitude and spatial extent than previously identified,” he said. “Also, one could look for this signal in regional and larger-scale global navigation satellite system datasets to, in principle, produce improved constraints on the distribution of ice mass fluctuations and/or solid Earth structure.”


“The Global Fingerprint of Modern Ice-Mass Loss on 3-D Crustal Motion” by Sophie Coulson, Mila Lubeck, Jerry X. Mitrovica, Evelyn Powell, James L. Davis and Mark J. Hoggard, 16 August 2021, Geophysical Research Letters.
DOI: 10.1029/2021GL095477

“So much ice is melting that Earth’s crust is moving,” Research Highlight, 24 August 2021, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-02285-0


View Comments

  • 1/2 the world's scientific community have their undies in a wad...very limited intellectually (love how that think they know mother nature & since nearly 100% Atheist there's no talking to them) while the other 1/2 are like yeah yeah but look at all this stuff that's been under the ice for thousands of years thar tell us smart guys what rear end is up instead of us (just) guessing.

  • Very Interesting Research.

    The Earth is actually a Matallic Core surrounded by a Viscus Fluid of Lava on which the continents and Tectonic Plates float.

    The Melting of the Frozen Ice is turning Solid into liquid and raising the Water levels in the oceaans. The attempt to fill the empty space and fill the solid space vacated, is onlyto be expected.

    We are seeing weak signals of the same in the recent Volcanic Eruption and Lava Flow to the Sea/ Ocean we are hearing about in the news media.

    Like everything else the Planet is also undergoing evolutionary changes.

    A great deal of the Changes we can expect and predict in the Short time frame (On a Universe Time Scale) and these can be accurately predicted using Quantum Computing and Predictive Models on a Planetary Scale. The accracy of these models on a longer time frame is Iffy , as long term predictions are increasingly inaccurate.

    The Science of Prediction using Models is in its infancy and we are groping in the dark, as at the planetary levels the forces and energies at play are enormous and we barely know the impact on the earths crust where most humans reside. The Consistency ofthe Earths Crus is also not uniform. Hence our ability to predict the Earthquakes, Volcanoes and other other disasters is also limited.

    Modelling Earth (Planet Gia - Third Rock from the Sun) using a Quantum Computer with all factors ( Variables and Constants ) considered, and the factors which could be driving same needs to be bult.

    I susect that the short -term impact based on Dataset gathered would be accurate , and may help us in making better predictions of such disasters and avoid the consequences of the same on people/ Other creatures living onthe Earths Crust.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

    Best of luck to the team!

  • "Modelling Earth ... using a Quantum Computer with all factors ( Variables and Constants ) considered, and the factors which could be driving same needs to be bult."

    Easier said than done when many of the "variables and constants" are poorly understood. One of the most, if not THE most, important variables is cloud coverage, which varies on a time scale of minutes or seconds, resulting in a changing albedo. While sometimes listed with a few significant figures, albedo is commonly characterized as being "about 0.3!" That is hardly adequate for forecasts a century into the future! Climatologists aren't exactly known for their rigorous mathematical analysis of even 1st-order forcings, let alone secondary and tertiary feedbacks. Note how often they don't even bother to list the uncertainties in their measurements!

    Even quantum computers are not immune to the principle of "Garbage In, Garbage Out." Computer models have long been acknowledged as running warm, and the most recent results are even worse. That suggests to me that there are some fundamental assumptions about variable relationships that are wrong. The emphasis should be on obtaining quality data and more accurate relationships between all the climatological parameters.

  • When the ocean levels cover California and New York I’ll be happy. Then we can talk about global warming

  • It seems got have been overlooked that about 30 Myr-ago in the late Eocene atmospheric CO2 was more than double what it is today and the biosphere enjoyed the warmth. And even though the pH of the oceans was much lower than today, the carbonate-secreting plankton diversified. No "acidification". Then when the CO2 started to drop the polar ice sheets began to form. It has not been studied and recorded how much the Earth's crust went up or down. Of course, there were no humans to worry about it or try to prevent it.

  • The first state we lose to rising ocean is Florida. Will you be buying or selling in Florida. What do we do with the senators from Florida one less state.

  • Why is it all the left leaning Liberal universities can see all these negative findings when its also hard to disprove these ambered claims. More of Gorings propaganda perhaps? Sea levels are constant with measurements within theverrors of measurement never mentioned!

  • Start putting all the trash we produce in place of the ice that should recover the right balance.

  • The crust is warping. The earth is dimming. The seas are rising. Yadeh yadeh yadeh. Translation. More billions in grant money please so we can take our sabaticals at six star hotels in Davos and avoid grading tedious term papers.

    This would be pure conjecture of course if any of the Left's prior and now expired dire predictions had come to fruition. As none of at least 50 such predictions beginning in the 1960s have come to pass you will pardon my skepticism. Fool me once shame on you. Fool me 50 times, plant me I am not sentient.

Harvard University

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