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Ian Joughin

Senior Principal Engineer

Affiliate Professor, Earth and Space Sciences






Ian Joughin continues his pioneering research into the use of differential SAR interferometry for the estimation of surface motion and topography of ice sheets. He combines the remote sensing with field work and modeling to solve ice dynamics problems. Solving the problems helps him understand the mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets in response to climate change.

In addition to polar research, he also contributed to the development of algorithms that were used to mosaic data for the near-global map of topography from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).

Department Affiliation

Polar Science Center


B.S. Electrical Engineering, University of Vermont, 1986

M.S. Electrical Engineering, University of Vermont, 1990

Ph.D. Electrical Engineering, University of Washington, 1995


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet from 1992 to 2018

Shepherd, A., and 87 others including B. Smith, I. Joughin, and T. Sutterley, "Mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet from 1992 to 2018," Nature, 579, 233-239, doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1855-2, 2020.

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12 Mar 2020

The Greenland Ice Sheet has been a major contributor to global sea-level rise in recent decades and it is expected to continue to be so. Although increases in glacier flow and surface melting have been driven by oceanic and atmospheric warming, the magnitude and trajectory of the ice sheet's mass imbalance remain uncertain. Here we compare and combine 26 individual satellite measurements of changes in the ice sheet's volume, flow and gravitational potential to produce a reconciled estimate of its mass balance. The ice sheet was close to a state of balance in the 1990s, but annual losses have risen since then, peaking at 345 ± 66 billion tonnes per year in 2011. In all, Greenland lost 3,902 ± 342 billion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2018, causing the mean sea level to rise by 10.8 ± 0.9 millimetres. Using three regional climate models, we show that the reduced surface mass balance has driven 1,964 ± 565 billion tonnes (50.3 per cent) of the ice loss owing to increased meltwater runoff. The remaining 1,938 ± 541 billion tonnes (49.7 per cent) of ice loss was due to increased glacier dynamical imbalance, which rose from 46 ± 37 billion tonnes per year in the 1990s to 87 ± 25 billion tonnes per year since then. The total rate of ice loss slowed to 222 ± 30 billion tonnes per year between 2013 and 2017, on average, as atmospheric circulation favoured cooler conditions and ocean temperatures fell at the terminus of Jakobshavn Isbrae. Cumulative ice losses from Greenland as a whole have been close to the rates predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their high-end climate warming scenario, which forecast an additional 70 to 130 millimetres of global sea-level rise by 2100 compared with their central estimate.

A decade of variability on Jakobshavn Isbræ: ocean temperatures pace speed through influence on mélange rigidity

Joughin, I., D.E. Shean, B.E. Smith, and D. Floricioiu, "A decade of variability on Jakobshavn Isbræ: ocean temperatures pace speed through influence on mélange rigidity," The Cryosphere, 14, 211-227, doi:10.5194/tc-14-211-2020, 2020.

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24 Jan 2020

The speed of Greenland's fastest glacier, Jakobshavn Isbræ, has varied substantially since its speed-up in the late 1990s. Here we present observations of surface velocity, mélange rigidity, and surface elevation to examine its behaviour over the last decade. Consistent with earlier results, we find a pronounced cycle of summer speed-up and thinning followed by winter slowdown and thickening. There were extended periods of rigid mélange in the winters of 2016–2017 and 2017–2018, concurrent with terminus advances ~6 km farther than in the several winters prior. These terminus advances to shallower depths caused slowdowns, leading to substantial thickening, as has been noted elsewhere. The extended periods of rigid mélange coincide well with a period of cooler waters in Disko Bay. Thus, along with the relative timing of the seasonal slowdown, our results suggest that the ocean's dominant influence on Jakobshavn Isbræ is through its effect on winter mélange rigidity, rather than summer submarine melting. The elevation time series also reveals that in summers when the area upstream of the terminus approaches flotation, large surface depressions can form, which eventually become the detachment points for major calving events. It appears that as elevations approach flotation, basal crevasses can form, which initiates a necking process that forms the depressions. The elevation data also show that steep cliffs often evolve into short floating extensions, rather than collapsing catastrophically due to brittle failure. Finally, summer 2019 speeds were slightly faster than the prior two summers, leaving it unclear whether the slowdown is ending.

Melt at grounding line controls observed and future retreat of Smith, Pope, and Kohler glaciers

Lilien, D.A., I. Joughin, B. Smith, and N. Gourmelen, "Melt at grounding line controls observed and future retreat of Smith, Pope, and Kohler glaciers," The Cryosphere, 13, 2817-2834, doi:10.5194/tc-13-2817-2019, 2019.

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5 Nov 2019

Smith, Pope, and Kohler glaciers and the corresponding Crosson and Dotson ice shelves have undergone speedup, thinning, and rapid grounding-line retreat in recent years, leaving them in a state likely conducive to future retreat. We conducted a suite of numerical model simulations of these glaciers and compared the results to observations to determine the processes controlling their recent evolution. The model simulations indicate that the state of these glaciers in the 1990s was not inherently unstable, i.e., that small perturbations to the grounding line would not necessarily have caused the large retreat that has been observed. Instead, sustained, elevated melt at the grounding line was needed to cause the observed retreat. Weakening of the margins of Crosson Ice Shelf may have hastened the onset of grounding-line retreat but is unlikely to have initiated these rapid changes without an accompanying increase in melt. In the simulations that most closely match the observed thinning, speedup, and retreat, modeled grounding-line retreat and ice loss continue unabated throughout the 21st century, and subsequent retreat along Smith Glacier's trough appears likely. Given the rapid progression of grounding-line retreat in the model simulations, thinning associated with the retreat of Smith Glacier may reach the ice divide and undermine a portion of the Thwaites catchment as quickly as changes initiated at the Thwaites terminus.

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In The News

Antarctic'as ice sheet is melting 3 times faster than before

Associate Press, Seth Borenstein

The melting of Antarctica is accelerating at an alarming rate, with about 3 trillion tons of ice disappearing since 1992, an international team of ice experts said in a new study.

14 Jun 2018

Hidden lakes drain below West Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier

UW News and Information, Hannah Hickey

Thwaites Glacier on the edge of West Antarctica is one of the planet’s fastest-moving glaciers. Research shows that it is sliding unstoppably into the ocean, mainly due to warmer seawater lapping at its underside.

8 Feb 2017

Satellite system tracks glaciers' flow in real time

Nature News, Jeff Tollefson

The Global Land Ice Velocity Extraction project (GoLIVE) is the first to provide scientists with regular, semi-automated measurements of ice movement across the entire world. The Landsat 8 satellite covers the planet every 16 days.

16 Dec 2016

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