Glacial isostatic adjustment: physical models and observational constraints

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Research Area


Research Team

Sea Level Research

Geographic Area



By far the most prescient insights into the interior structure of the planet have been provided on the basis of elastic wave seismology. Analysis of the travel times of shear or compression wave phases excited by individual earthquakes, or through analysis of the elastic gravitational free oscillations that individual earthquakes of sufficiently large magnitude may excite, has been the central focus of Earth physics research for more than a century. Unfortunately, data provide no information that is directly relevant to understanding the solid state 'flow' of the polycrystalline outer 'mantle' shell of the planet that is involved in the thermally driven convective circulation that is responsible for powering the 'drift' of the continents and which controls the rate of planetary cooling on long timescales. For this reason, there has been an increasing focus on the understanding of physical phenomenology that is unambiguously associated with mantle flow processes that are distinct from those directly associated with the convective circulation itself. This paper reviews the past many decades of work that has been invested in understanding the most important of such processes, namely that which has come to be referred to as 'glacial isostatic adjustment' (GIA). This process concerns the response of the planet to the loading and unloading of the high latitude continents by the massive accumulations of glacial ice that have occurred with almost metronomic regularity over the most recent million years of Earth history. Forced by the impact of gravitational n-body effects on the geometry of Earth's orbit around the Sun through the impact upon the terrestrial regime of received solar insolation, these surface mass loads on the continents have left indelible records of their occurrence in the 'Earth system' consisting of the oceans, continents, and the great polar ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica themselves. Although this ice-age phenomenology has been clearly recognized since early in the last century, it was for over 50 years considered to be no more than an interesting curiosity, the understanding of which remained on the periphery of the theoretical physics of the Earth. This was the case in part because no globally applicable theory was available that could be applied to rigorously interpret the observations. Equally important to understanding the scientific lethargy that held back the understanding of this phenomenon involving mantle flow processes was the lack of appreciation of the wide range of observations that were in fact related to GIA physics. This paper is devoted to a review of the global theories of the GIA process that have since been developed as a means of interpreting the extensive variety of observations that are now recognized as being involved in the response of the planet to the loading and unloading of its surface by glacial ice. The paper will also provide examples of the further analyses of Earth physics and climate related processes that applications of the modern theoretical structures have enabled.

Publication Details

Series Title

Reports on Progress in Physics

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