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Evidence for rapid retreat and mass loss of Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica

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Thwaites Glacier, the second largest ice stream in West Antarctica, drains an area of 166500 ± 2000 km2 which accumulates 55 ± 5 Gt a-1 (or 60 ± 6 km3 ice a-1) into the Amundsen Sea, unrestrained by an ice shelf. Using interferometric synthetic-aperture radar (InSAR) data collected by the European Remote-sensing Satellites (ERS-1 and -2) in 1996, an output flux of 71 ± 7 Gt a-1 (or 77 ± 8 km3 ice a-1) is estimated at the grounding line, where ice thickness is deduced from hydrostatic equilibrium. A similar flux, 70 ± 7 Gt a-1 (or 76 ± 8 k m3 ice a-1), is obtained at a gate located 20 km upstream, where ice thickness was measured in 1978 by ice-sounding radar. Total accumulation in between the two gates is 1.6 Gt a-1, or 1.8 km3 ice a-1. Ice discharge therefore exceeds mass accumulation by 30 ± 15%, and Thwaites Glacier must be thinning and retreating at present. The InSAR data show that the glacier floating ice tongue exerts no backpressure on the inland ice, calves into tabular icebergs along a significant fraction of its grounding line, and has a grounding-line thickness which exceeds a prior-calculated limit for stability. Glacier thinning is confirmed at the coast by the detection of a 1.4 ± 0.2 km retreat of its grounding line between 1992 and 1996 with InSAR, which implies 3.2 ± 0.6 m ice a-1 thinning at the glacier center and less near the sides. These results complement the decimeter-scale annual surface lowering observed with satellite radar altimetry several hundred km inland of the grounding line. The magnitude of ice thinning estimated at the coast, however, rules out temporal changes in accumulation as the explanation for surface lowering. Ice thinning must be due to changes in ice flow.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: March 1, 2001

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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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