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Calculating basal thermal zones beneath the Antarctic ice sheet

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A procedure is presented for using a simple flowline model to calculate the fraction of the bed that is thawed beneath present-day ice sheets, and therefore for mapping thawed, frozen, melting and freezing basal thermal zones. The procedure is based on the proposition, easily demonstrated, that variations in surface slope along ice flowlines are due primarily to variations in bed topography and ice–bed coupling, where ice–bed coupling for sheet flow is represented by the basal thawed fraction. This procedure is then applied to the central flowlines of flow bands on the Antarctic ice sheet where accumulation rates, surface elevations and bed topography are mapped with sufficient accuracy, and where sheet flow rather than stream flow prevails.

In East Antarctica, the usual condition is a low thawed fraction in subglacial highlands, but a high thawed fraction in subglacial basins and where ice converges on ice streams. This is consistent with a greater depression of the basal melting temperature and a slower rate of conducting basal heat to the surface where ice is thick, and greater basal frictional heat production where ice flow is fast, as expected for steady-state flow. This correlation is reduced or even reversed where steady-state flow has been disrupted recently, notably where ice-stream surges produced the Dibble and Dalton Iceberg Tongues, both of which are now stagnating.

In West Antarctica, for ice draining into the Pine Island Bay polynya of the Amundsen Sea, the basal thawed fraction is consistent with a prolonged and ongoing surge of Pine Island Glacier and with a recently initiated surge of Thwaites Glacier. For ice draining into the Ross Ice Shelf, long ice streams extend nearly to the West Antarctic ice divide. Over the rugged bed topography near the ice divide, no correlation consistent with steady-state sheet flow exists between ice thickness and the basal thawed fraction. The bed is wholly thawed beneath ice streams, even where stream flow is slow. This is consistent with ongoing gravitational collapse of ice entering the Ross Sea embayment and with unstable flow in the ice streams.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: March 1, 2000

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  • The Journal of Glaciology is published six times per year. It accepts submissions from any discipline related to the study of snow and ice. All articles are peer reviewed. The Journal is included in the ISI Science Citation Index.
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