Understanding adaptive time-stepping

It is helpful to keep in mind this fundamental fact:

length of time steps taken by a model affects results of a simulation.

This applies to all evolutionary models and PISM is no different.

We expect model results to converge to the solution of the continuum problem corresponding to a model as \(\dt\) goes to zero. Also, results using different \(\dt\) should be “close” to this solution and to each other, but they need not be the same.

One important consequence is that changes in PISM settings that may not seem to be related to physical choices may affect results if they affect time stepping.

Here is a possibly-incomplete list of PISM components and settings that may affect time step length.

  1. Numerical stability criteria.

    1. Diffusivity-based time step restriction for the mass continuity (mass transport) step using SIA diffusivity (or its estimate when the Blatter solver is used).

    2. The value of time_stepping­.adaptive_ratio adjusting the diffusivity-based time step restriction (see (4)).

    3. CFL time step restriction for the mass continuity step using sliding velocity, (or vertically-averaged horizontal velocity with the Blatter solver).

    4. CFL time step restriction for horizontal advection within the ice volume within energy balance and age models. Uses horizontal (\(u,v\)) components of the ice velocity within the 3D volume of the ice.

  2. Reporting.

    1. If time_stepping­.hit_ts_times is set, PISM will adjust time step lengths to “hit” times requested with output­.timeseries­.times.

    2. If time_stepping­.hit_extra_times is set (the default), PISM will adjust time step lengths to “hit” times requested with output­.extra­.times.

    3. If time_stepping­.hit_save_times is set, PISM will adjust time step lengths to “hit” times requested with output­.snapshot­.times.

  3. Time-step “skipping” to reduce computational costs: time_stepping­.skip­.enabled and time_stepping­.skip­.max.

    This mechanism enables PISM to take a number of “cheap” mass-balance steps (including SIA diffusivity updates) before more expensive temperature, age, and SSA stress balance computations are done.

    Time step “skipping” roughly corresponds to asynchronous coupling between

    • ice flow by shear in planes parallel to the geoid and

    • membrane-type ice flow and advection of energy and tracers (such as age).

    This is only effective if the time step is being limited by the diffusivity time step restriction associated to mass continuity using the SIA.

    PISM computes time step restrictions \(\{\dt_0, \dt_1, \dots, \dt_n \}\) from all of PISM’s sub-modules and sorts them from from smallest to largest. Then the maximum allowed time step is

    \[\dt_{\text{max}} = \dt_0.\]

    If time_stepping­.skip­.enabled is set and the most severe restriction comes from the SIA-diffusivity-based stability criterion for mass continuity, it skips

    (41)\[N = \min\left(\left\lfloor 0.95\, \frac{\dt_1}{\dt_0} \right\rfloor, N_{\text{max}} \right)\]

    energy, age, and 3D velocity updates, where \(N_{\text{max}}\) is set using time_stepping­.skip­.max.


    The effects of this mechanism are not well understood. Please use with caution.

    The maximum recommended value for time_stepping­.skip­.max depends on the context. The temperature field should be updated when the surface changes significantly, and likewise the basal sliding velocity if it comes from the SSA calculation.

  4. Atmosphere, surface process, ocean, and sea level forcing components.

  5. The Lingle-Clark bed deformation model (see Lingle-Clark and bed_deformation­.lc­.update_interval).

  6. If geometry­.front_retreat­.use_cfl is set, PISM adjusts time step lengths to satisfy the CFL condition that uses the total front retreat rate coming from calving and frontal melt models.

  7. The time step length never exceeds time_stepping­.maximum_time_step.

  8. If time_stepping­.hit_multiples is set to a positive number, PISM will “hit” multiples of the number of model years specified. For example, if stability criteria require a time-step of 11 years and the -timestep_hit_multiples 3 option is set, PISM will take a 9 model year long time step. This can be useful to enforce consistent sampling of periodic climate data.

  9. If the value \(R\) set using time_stepping­.resolution is positive PISM reduces the time step length so that

    (42)\[\dt = N\cdot R\]

    for some integer \(N\).

    The default \(R\) (\(1\) second) allows PISM to represent model time more accurately, reducing the influence of rounding errors.


    This is an intermediate-term solution for an issue reported by Thomas Kleiner: some simulations produced different results with identical inputs but different start years.

    We tracked it down to the fact that these simulations ended up using slightly different time step lengths. This, in turn, was caused by differences in the absolute precision of the C++ type double for numbers of different magnitudes.

  10. The time step length never exceeds the total length of the run.

At each time step the PISM standard output includes “flags” and then a summary of the model state using a few numbers. A typical example is

v$Eh  diffusivity (dt=0.83945 in 2 substeps; av dt_sub_mass_cont=0.41972)
S -124791.571:  3.11640   2.25720      3.62041    18099.93737
y  SSA:     3 outer iterations, ~17.0 KSP iterations each

The characters “v$Eh” at the beginning of the flags line, the first line in the above example, give a very terse description of which physical processes were modeled in that time step. Here “v” means that a stress balance was solved to compute the velocity. Then the enthalpy was updated (”E”) and the ice thickness and surface elevation were updated (”h”). The rest of the line looks like

diffusivity (dt=0.83945 in 2 substeps; av dt_sub_mass_cont=0.41972)

Recall that the PISM time step is determined by an adaptive mechanism. Stable mass conservation and conservation of energy solutions require such an adaptive time-stepping scheme [16]. The first word we see here, namely “diffusivity”, is the adaptive-timestepping “reason”. See Table 24. We also see that there was a major time step of \(0.83945\) model years divided into \(2\) substeps of about \(0.42\) years. The parameter time_stepping­.skip­.enabled enables this mechanism, while time_stepping­.skip­.max sets the maximum number of such substeps. The adaptive mechanism may choose to take fewer substeps than time_stepping­.skip­.max so as to satisfy certain numerical stability criteria, however.

The second line in the above, the line which starts with “S”, is the summary. Its format, and the units for these numbers, is simple and is given by a couple of lines printed near the beginning of the standard output for the run:

P       YEAR:       ivol      iarea  max_diffusivity  max_sliding_vel
U      years   10^6_km^3  10^6_km^2         m^2 s^-1           m/year

That is, in each summary we have the total ice volume, total ice area, maximum diffusivity (of the SIA mass conservation equation), and “maximum sliding velocity”. Specifically, the last number is \(\max(\max(|u|), \max(|v|))\), i.e. the number that appears in the CFL time step restriction for the “advective” part of the flow in the mass continuity equation.


max_sliding_vel reported here is not the same as the maximum sliding speed, \(\max(\sqrt{u^2 + v^2})\).

The third line of the above example shows that the SSA stress balance was solved. Information on the number of nonlinear (outer) and linear (inner) iterations is provided [10].

Table 24 Meaning of some adaptive time-stepping “reasons” in the standard output line

PISM output

Active adaptive constraint or PISM sub-system that limited time-step size


CFL condition for the “advective” part of the mass continuity equation. Uses (\(u\), \(v\)) components of the vertically-averaged horizontal ice velocity with the Blatter stress balance model. Uses sliding velocity with all other stress balance choices [10].


SIA-diffusivity-based time step restriction for the mass continuity equation [16], [106]

energy, age model

CFL condition using horizontal (\(u\), \(v\)) components of the ice velocity within the ice volume. Restricts the time step of enthalpy, temperature, or age advection [16]. (This CFL condition does not use the vertical (\(w\)) component of ice velocity: PISM’s 3D advection scheme is explicit in \(x\) and \(y\) and implicit in \(z\).)

end of the run

end of prescribed run time


maximum allowed \(\dt\) set with time_stepping­.maximum_time_step

-ts_... reporting

the -ts_times option and the configuration parameter time_stepping­.hit_ts_times; see section Scalar diagnostic quantities

-extra_... reporting

the -extra_times option and the configuration parameter time_stepping­.hit_extra_times; see section Spatially-varying diagnostic quantities


a surface or an atmosphere model


an ocean model


a hydrology model stability criterion, see section Subglacial hydrology


CFL condition using the 2D horizontal retreat rate such as the eigen-calving model, see section Calving and front retreat


Prefix: time_stepping.

  1. adaptive_ratio (0.12) Adaptive time stepping ratio for the explicit scheme for the mass balance equation; [16], inequality (25)

  2. count_steps (no) If yes, IceModel::run() will count the number of time steps it took. Sometimes useful for performance evaluation. Counts all steps, regardless of whether processes (mass continuity, energy, velocity, …) occurred within the step.

  3. hit_extra_times (yes) Modify the time-stepping mechanism to hit times requested using output­.extra­.times.

  4. hit_multiples (0 years) Hit every X years, where X is specified using this parameter. Use 0 to disable.

  5. hit_save_times (no) Modify the time-stepping mechanism to hit times requested using output­.snapshot­.times.

  6. hit_ts_times (no) Modify the time-stepping mechanism to hit times requested using output­.timeseries­.times.

  7. maximum_time_step (60 365days) Maximum allowed time step length

  8. resolution (1 seconds) Time steps are rounded down to be a multiple of this number (set to zero to allow arbitrary time step lengths)

  9. skip­.enabled (no) Use the temperature, age, and SSA stress balance computation skipping mechanism.

  10. skip­.max (10) Number of mass-balance steps, including SIA diffusivity updates, to perform before a the temperature, age, and SSA stress balance computations are done

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