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Of isbrae and ice streams

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Fast-flowing ice streams and outlet glaciers provide the major avenues for ice flow from past and present ice sheets. These ice streams move faster than the surrounding ice sheet by a factor of 100 or more. Several mechanisms for fast ice-stream flow have been identified, leading to a spectrum of different ice-stream types. In this paper we discuss the two end members of this spectrum, which we term the "ice-stream" type (represented by the Siple Coast ice streams in West Antarctica) and the "isbrae" type (represented by Jakobshavn Isbrae in Greenland). The typical ice stream is wide, relatively shallow (~1000 m), has a low surface slope and driving stress (~10kPa), and ice-stream location is not strongly controlled by bed topography. Fast flow is possible because the ice stream has a slippery bed, possibly underlain by weak, actively deforming sediments. The marginal shear zones are narrow and support most of the driving stress, and the ice deforms almost exclusively by transverse shear. The margins seem to be inherently unstable; they migrate, and there are plausible mechanisms for such ice streams to shut down. The isbrae type of ice stream is characterized by very high driving stresses, often exceeding 200 kPa. They flow through deep bedrock channels that are significantly deeper than the surrounding ice, and have steep surface slopes. Ice deformation includes vertical as well as lateral shear, and basal motion need not contribute significantly to the overall motion. The marginal shear zones tend to be wide relative to the isbrae width, and the location of isbrae and its margins is strongly controlled by bedrock topography. They are stable features, and can only shut down if the high ice flux cannot be supplied from the adjacent ice sheet. Isbraes occur in Greenland and East Antarctica, and possibly parts of Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers, West Antarctica. In this paper, we compare and contrast the two types of ice streams, addressing questions such as ice deformation, basal motion, subglacial hydrology, seasonality of ice flow, and stability of the ice streams.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2003-01-01

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  • The Annals of Glaciology is a peer-reviewed, thematic journal published 2 to 4 times a year by the International Glaciological Society (IGS). Publication frequency is determined and volume/issue numbers assigned by the IGS Council on a year-to-year basis and with a lead time of 3 to 4 years. The Annals of Glaciology is included in the ISI Science Citation Index from volume 50, number 50 onwards.

    Themes can be on any aspect of the study of snow and ice. Individual members can make a suggestion for a theme for an Annals issue to the Secretary General, who will forward it to the IGS Publications Committee. The IGS Publication Committee will make a recommendation for an individual themed Annals issue, together with a potential Annals Chief Editor for that issue, to IGS Council. The IGS Council will make the decision whether to proceed, taking into account the spread of topics and the overall capacity for publication of pages in Annals.

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