Terms of Reference for ISMASS

ISMASS was established in 1993 as a SCAR-tasked group on Antarctic mass balance and sea-level contribution, which has since become bipolar. ISMASS is international and interdisciplinary across the spectrum of relevant ice-sheet mass balance disciplines and is a self-governing expert group sponsored by SCAR, IASC, and CliC. ISMASS aims to:

  1. Assess the status of research on interactions between ice sheets and the climate and other Earth system components, and identify gaps in current understanding requiring process studies, sustained and targeted campaign-based observations and model development and experiments.
  2. Serve SCAR, IASC, CliC, research sponsors and other organizations as a source of knowledge on ice-sheet mass balance and propose directions for future research in this area.
  3. Facilitate and serve as a forum for the evaluation and promotion of scientific understanding of ice-sheet system models for both Antarctica and Greenland, in particular with respect to their contributions to global sea-level rise, and to make such information readily available to scientists, policymakers, and the wider public.
  4. Keep track of the status of ice-sheet research carried out and sponsored by scientific organizations such as WGMS, GLIMS, IACS and IGS, and liaise with them to ensure that respective activities contribute as much as possible to the objectives of SCAR, IASC and CliC.
  5. Promote collaboration between all disciplines (e.g. atmospheric, oceanographic, cryospheric, biogeochemical, solid earth and palaeoclimate sciences) that have an interest in interactions between ice sheets and climate, and on rapid response to modern ocean and atmosphere forcings.
  6. Work in concert with relevant SCAR, IASC and CliC panels and other groups to integrate ice-sheet observations and modelling into corresponding global and regional activities, and ensure that our collective objectives are met and resources used most efficiently.
  7. Work with appropriate agencies on the distribution and archiving of ice-sheet observations and model output.
  8. Attract a new generation of scientists, via interaction with groups such as APECS, into the field of ice-sheet mass balance research.

ISMASS Background

In 1993 the Global Change in Antarctica (GLOCHANT) Group of Specialists (GoS), a SCAR initiative, established a task group on the “Antarctic ice sheet mass balance and sea-level” contributions (ISMASS) to address the requirements for a coordinated international approach to resolving the role of the Antarctic ice sheet in sea-level change. The group was established under the chairmanship of Professor Charles Bentley, and ISMASS held its first meeting at Cambridge in conjunction with the Fifth International Symposium on Antarctic Glaciology (VISAG) in 1993. With the re-organization of SCAR and the dissolution of GLOCHANT, ISMASS became an Expert Group of the SCAR Physical Sciences Standing Scientific Group (SSG).

In June 2001, ISMASS held a workshop in Annapolis, MD, at which a strategy was formulated to achieve a meaningful scientific approach to understanding and predicting Antarctic ice sheet mass balance.  The resulting report, “Recommendations for the collection and synthesis of Antarctic Ice Sheet mass balance data” was published in Global and Planetary Change (vol. 42, 1-15, 2004).  ISMASS contributed (including editing of the proceedings in Annals of Glaciology, vol. 39) to the SCAR International Symposium on Antarctic Glaciology, Milan, Italy, August 2003, and co-organized (with the SCAR International Trans-Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE) Expert Group) and contributed to a symposium (including editing of the proceedings in Annals of Glaciology, vol. 41) during SCAR at Bremen, Germany, July 2004.

Studies conducted over the past decade or so have focused attention on dynamic behavior of ice streams and outlet glaciers in both Greenland and Antarctica and on rapid changes that cannot be explained by “conventional” ice-sheet models that form the basis for sea-level projections issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  In its Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC acknowledged shortcomings of current models, stating that “dynamical processes not included in current models but suggested by recent observations could increase the vulnerability of the ice sheets to warming, increasing future sea level rise.  Understanding of these processes is limited and there is no consensus on their likely magnitude.”  Recognizing the importance of ice sheets on controlling global sea levels, and the inadequacies in current efforts to model the changes in ice sheets in response to a warming climate, ISMASS published “A need for more realistic ice-sheet models” (SCAR Report no 30) in November, 2007, and organized a three-day Workshop in conjunction with the SCAR/IASC Open Science Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, July 2008.  The outcome of this Workshop, “Ice Sheet Mass Balance and Sea Level” was presented at the International Symposium on “Glaciology in the International Polar Year” (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, July 27-31, 2009) and published as SCAR Report no 38.  A Summer School on “Ice Sheet Models for the 21st Century” was held at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, August 3-14, 2009 (see SCAR Report no 36).

During the St. Petersburg Workshop, it became evident that a bi-polar perspective is desirable for ISMASS.  Ongoing dynamical changes in Greenland outlet glaciers, such as the speed up and rapid thinning of Jakobshavn Isbræ following the weakening and disintegration of its floating terminus, provide valuable insights into the future response of Antarctic glaciers and ice streams following further warming.  The Workshop Report details further the need for studying both the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets to improve physical understanding of ice sheet processes responsible for rapid change and to incorporate improved physical understanding into numerical models.

In July 2012 ISMASS held a one-day workshop in Portland, Oregon, USA, the key outcome of which was a review paper “Ice-sheet mass balance and climate change” published in Nature in 2013. Around this time WMO CliC also joined SCAR and IASC as a formal sponsor of ISMASS.

ISMASS is presently co-sponsored by SCAR (representing the Antarctic science community), IASC (representing the Arctic science community), and WCRP CliC (representing the polar climate science community), to reflect the renewed focus on both polar ice sheets as described in the Terms of Reference.


  • APECS – Association of Polar Early Career Scientists
  • CliC – WCRP Climate and Cryosphere Project
  • FRIS – Forum for Research into Ice Shelf Processes
  • GLIMS – Global Land Ice Measurements from Space,
  • IACS – International Association of Cryospheric Sciences
  • IASC – International Arctic Science Committee
  • IGS – International Glaciological Society
  • IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  • ISMASS – SCAR/IASC/CliC Expert Group on Ice Sheet Mass Balance
  • SCAR – Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research
  • WAIS – West Antarctic Ice Sheet Initiative
  • WCRP – World Climate Research Programme
  • WGMS – World Glacier Monitoring Service
  • WMO – World Meteorological Organization