One of the main obstacles to forecasting sea level rise over the coming centuries is the problem of predicting changes in the flow of ice sheets, and in particular their fast-flowing outlet glaciers. While numerical models of ice sheet flow exist, they are often hampered by a lack of input data, particularly concerning the bedrock topography beneath the ice. Measurements of this topography are relatively scarce, expensive to obtain, and often error-prone. In contrast, observations of surface elevations and velocities are widespread and accurate.
In an ideal world, we could combine surface observations with our understanding of ice flow to invert for the bed topography. However, this problem is ill-posed, and solutions are both unstable and non-unique. Conventionally, this problem is circumvented by the use of regularization terms in the inversion, but these are often arbitrary and the numerical methods are still somewhat unstable.
One philosophically appealing option is to apply a fully Bayesian framework to the problem. Although some success has been had in this area, the resulting distributions are extremely difficult to work with, both from an interpretive standpoint and a numerical one. In particular, certain forms of prior information, such as constraints on the bedrock slope and roughness, are extremely difficult to represent in this framework.
A more profitable avenue for exploration is a semi-Bayesian approach, whereby a classical inverse method is regularized using terms derived from a Bayesian model of the problem. This allows for the inclusion of quite sophisticated forms of prior information, while retaining the tractability of the classical inverse problem. In particular, we can account for the severely non-Gaussian error distribution of many of our measurements, which was previously impossible.
- Mathematical Geoscience Seminar