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West Antarctic ice-stream discharge variability: mechanism, controls and pattern of grounding-line retreat

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West Antarctic ice streams show pronounced flow variability in their downstream reaches, with changes stranding formerly fast-flowing ice and redirecting discharge. A simple model, in which the temperature gradient in basal ice provides control of fast sliding in the downstream reach, can explain this behavior. Downstream thinning steepens the temperature gradient near the bed, increasing upward heat flow and the tendency toward basal freezing. The basal temperature gradient is steepest and the tendency toward basal freezing the strongest in ice that has experienced the most rapid downstream thinning, that is, the fastest-flowing ice. The most 'successful' rapid outflows are regions where basal water from elsewhere is likely to be consumed. Freezing here leads to episodic slow-downs and redirections of flow, the history of which appears in satellite imagery as ice rises, distorted streaklines, and margin jumps created when discharge migrates to areas with more favorable basal conditions. One compelling consequence of this process is that it makes catastrophic collapse less likely; if discharge currents are forced to slow when they become too fast (thin), then there may be an upper bound on the retreat rate and discharge flux of the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) ice-stream system under the present climate.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: December 1, 2004

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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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