Over the past 50 years, ideas relating to the physical features and dynamics of ice sheets have evolved materially, primarily due to modern technological advances in the acquisition of basic data. This paper therefore does not review contemporary knowledge but records how our perception of ice sheets has changed with time. Rather than dealing with individual contributions to the understanding of ice sheets, major topics and concepts are considered against a background of earlier ideas and theories.
Both the form and extent of the surface features of ice sheets have been defined more clearly by the relatively recent use of satellite studies (imagery and altimetry). In an analogous way, radio echo-sounding has enabled the accurate calculation of ice thicknesses and the mapping of the sub-ice bedrock contours, and hence estimation of the ice volume. Studies on the dynamics of ice sheets have been enhanced by bore-hole sampling of deep ice and the determination of ice-temperature distributions, coupled with measurements of mass balance and both surface and internal ice movement. Internal deformation of ice sheets, surging, and various flow theories are considered in relation to recent modelling studies. Global geophysics inevitably includes the role of ice sheets, and therefore climatological studies and new atmospheric chemistry data, together with information on the distribution of meteorites on the Antarctic ice sheet, are considered critically.
Modern concepts of the evolution of ice sheets have substantially modified earlier ideas of the glacial geologists and have explained much that had previously mystified them.