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Thermodynamics of basal freeze-on: predicting basal and subglacial signatures of stopped ice streams and interstream ridges

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We have constructed a numerical model that simulates the response of subglacial sediments to basal freeze-on. The model is set up to emulate the basal zone of drilling sites in the Ross Sea sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet. We treat basal freeze-on at an ice-sediment interface as a thermodynamic process thatcouples the flow of water, heat and solutes in unfrozen subglacial sediments underlying a freezing ice base. The coupling of these flows occurs through the Clapeyron equation, which specifies the dependence of the basal freezing/melting temperature on ice pressure, water pressure, solute concentration and surface tension effects. Thermally driven water flow is induced when an ice base becomes supercooled below the pressure-melting point because ice–water surface tension inhibits ice growth in small pore spaces of fine-grained subglacial sediments. Our model results show that basal freeze-on is capable of inducing considerable changes in the basal zone of both ice streams and interstream ridges. These changes are associated with specific signatures that compare with borehole observations and geophysical surveys. Water-pressure levels are reduced, and thick layers of debris-laden basal ice develop. These basal ice layers and underlying sediments contain a distinct isotopic signal. The predicted stable-isotope ratios reflect Rayleigh-type isotopic fractionation whose significance increases with increasing freezing rates. Supercooling of the ice base induces also measurable changes in the ice–temperature profile of the glacier. Till porosity represents another quantity whose evolution is influenced strongly by basal freeze-on. In particular, measurements of vertical porosity distribution beneath stopped ice streams could be used to back-calculate the timing of the onset of basal freezing. Our model results show that the basal zone of ice streams and interstream ridges responds sensitively to changes in basal melting/freezing rates. This sensitivity may allow reconstruction of past conditions beneath ice streams and interstream ridges from measurements made on basal ice samples and subglacial sediment samples. Our model results also indicate that meltwater from fast-flowing ice streams may be driven towards the freezing ice base of interstream ridges.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2003

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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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