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Large ice sheets, such as those presently covering Greenland and Antarctica, are important in driving changes of global climate and sea level. Yet numerical models developed to predict climate change and ice sheet-driven sea level fluctuations have substantial limitations: Poorly represented physical processes in the ice sheet component likely lead to an underestimation of sea level rise forced by a warming climate.

The resultant uncertainty in sea level projections, and the implications for climate policy, have been widely discussed since the publication of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [IPCC, 2007]. The assessment report notes that current models do not include “the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow, because a basis in published literature is lacking.” The report also notes that the understanding of rapid dynamical changes in ice flow “is too limited to assess their likelihood or provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise.”