Changes in the area and volume of polar ice sheets are intricately linked to changes in global climate, and the resulting changes in sea level could severely impact the densely populated coastal regions on Earth. Antarctica is Earth's largest reservoir of glacial ice. Melting of the West Antarctic part alone of the Antarctic ice sheet would cause a sea-level rise of approximately 6 meters (m), and the potential sea-level rise after melting of the entire Antarctic ice sheet is estimated to be 65 m (Lythe and others, 2001) to 73 m (Williams and Hall, 1993). The mass balance (the net volumetric gain or loss) of the Antarctic ice sheet is highly complex, responding differently to different climatic and other conditions in each region (Vaughan, 2005). In a review paper, Rignot and Thomas (2002) concluded that the West Antarctic ice sheet is probably becoming thinner overall; although it is known to be thickening in the west, it is thinning in the north. The mass balance of the East Antarctic ice sheet is thought by Davis and others (2005) to be positive on the basis of the change in satellite-altimetry measurements made between 1992 and 2003.
Measurement of changes in area and mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet was given a very high priority in recommendations by the Polar Research Board of the National Research Council (1986), in subsequent recommendations by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) (1989, 1993), and by the National Science Foundation's (1990) Division of Polar Programs. On the basis of these recommendations, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) decided that the archive of early 1970s Landsat 1, 2, and 3 Multispectral Scanner (MSS) images of Antarctica and the subsequent repeat coverage made possible with Landsat and other satellite images provided an excellent means of documenting changes in the cryospheric coastline of Antarctica (Ferrigno and Gould, 1987). The availability of this information provided the impetus for carrying out a comprehensive analysis of the glaciological features of the coastal regions and changes in ice fronts of Antarctica (Swithinbank, 1988; Williams and Ferrigno, 1988). The project was later modified to include Landsat 4 and 5 MSS and Thematic Mapper (TM) images [and in some areas Landsat 7 Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) images], RADARSAT images, aerial photography, and other data where available, to compare changes that occurred during a 20- to 25- or 30-year time interval (or longer where data were available, as in the Antarctic Peninsula). The results of the analysis are being used to produce a digital database and a series of USGS Geologic Investigations Series Maps (I-2600) (Williams and others, 1995; Ferrigno and others, 2002; and Williams and Ferrigno, 2005) (available online at http://www.glaciers.er.usgs.gov).