Nasa Tech Briefs

In order to have the capability to use satellite data from its own missions to inform future sea-level rise projections, JPL needed a full-fledged ice-sheet/iceshelf flow model, capable of modeling the mass balance of Antarctica and Greenland into the near future. ISSM was developed with such a goal in mind, as a massively parallelized, multi-purpose finite-element framework dedicated to ice-sheet modeling.

Modeled Antarctic Surface Velocity using ISSM.
ISSM features unstructured meshes (Tria in 2D, and Penta in 3D) along with corresponding finite elements for both types of meshes. Each finite element can carry out diagnostic, prognostic, transient, thermal 3D, surface, and bed slope simulations. Anisotropic meshing enables adaptation of meshes to a certain metric, and the 2D Shelfy-Stream, 3D Blatter/ Pattyn, and 3D Full-Stokes formulations capture the bulk of the ice-flow physics. These elements can be coupled together, based on the Arlequin method, so that on a large scale model such as Antarctica, each type of finite element is used in the most efficient manner.

For each finite element referenced above, ISSM implements an adjoint. This adjoint can be used to carry out model inversions of unknown model parameters, typically ice rheology and basal drag at the ice/bedrock interface, using a metric such as the observed InSAR surface velocity. This data assimilation capability is crucial to allow spinning up of ice flow models using available satellite data.

ISSM relies on the PETSc library for its vectors, matrices, and solvers. This allows ISSM to run efficiently on any parallel platform, whether shared or distributed. It can run on the largest clusters, and is fully scalable. This allows ISSM to tackle models the size of continents.

ISSM is embedded into MATLAB and Python, both open scientific platforms. This improves its outreach within the science community. It is entirely written in C/C++, which gives it flexibility in its design, and the power/speed that C/C++ allows. ISSM is svn (subversion) hosted, on a JPL repository, to facilitate its development and maintenance.

ISSM can also model propagation of rifts using contact mechanics and mesh splitting, and can interface to the Dakota software. To carry out sensitivity analysis, mesh partitioning algorithms are available, based on the Scotch, Chaco, and Metis partitioners that ensure equal area mesh partitions can be done, which are then usable for sampling and local reliability methods.

This work was done by Eric Larour and John E. Schiermeier of Caltech, and Helene Seroussi and Mathieu Morlinghem of Ecole Centrale Paris for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, see

This software is available for commercial licensing. Please contact Dan Broderick at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. NPO-48164

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