Ice shelves may develop either by continued thickening of sea ice that is held fast to the shore, or by the seaward extension of inland ice. For both processes, as well as for an understanding of ablation and of accumulation at the bottom surface of ice shelves, we need to understand melting and freezing processes in relation to salinity, temperature, and pressure. Consideration of these factors shows that basal melting beneath the thicker parts of ice shelves is much greater than is generally appreciated. This could be sufficient to bring the estimated mass balance of Antarctica into approximate equilibrium. It appears that most Antarctic ice shelves are dependent on the supply of inland ice for their continued existence. However the thick layer of sea ice beneath the Amery Ice Shelf is readily explained in terms of sub-ice water circulation.
Transport of heat and mass by water motion beneath ice shelves has the potential to change ice thicknesses by similar amounts to that caused by internal deformation of the ice shelf. Bottom freezing due to thermal conduction throughout the ice shelf is of minor importance.
While attention is drawn to the basic equations for flow of ice shelves, it is pointed out that they have yet to be applied satisfactorily to the problem of iceberg calving. This appears from field observations to be due primarily to creep failure of spreading ice shelves, possibly aided by impact from floating icebergs. Recent observations show the effectiveness and likely quantitative importance of this “big bang” theory of iceberg formation in Antarctica.
A brief discussion of the effects of climatic change on the disintegration of ice shelves is presented.