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Characteristics of subglacial drainage systems deduced from load-cell measurements

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Rock tunnels beneath Engabreen, northern Norway, permit access to the ice–bedrock interface beneath a 210 m thick glacier. Eight load cells have been installed in the bedrock of the glacier sole along a 22 m transect. With some interruptions, the load cells have been logged at 15 min intervals since December 1992; here we analyse the records until 2003. Load-cell signals measure stresses acting normal to the bedrock, and usually log the pressure of the thin water film between the basal ice and the bed. Occasionally there are distinct pressure events, characterized by short-lived (hours) local minima, often followed by a maximum before decaying to background load-cell pressure. The amplitudes of these pressure events are of the order of 0.01–1 MPa and depend on the placement of the sensor and the state of the subglacial drainage system. We identify winter and summer pressure regimes. The winter regime is characterized by few pressure events of large pressure amplitude influencing all load cells. A lag of 0–6 days is observed between surface forcing (rain) and pressure events during winter. The summer regime typically has periods of daily pressure events of low amplitude. No delay is seen between surface forcing and pressure events during the summer regime. In summer, the onset of a pressure event is correlated with a local maximum of the derivative of the subglacial discharge record, whereas no such relation is found during the winter regime. The transition from winter to summer (May/June) is easily detectable and is strongly correlated with a rapid increase in subglacial discharge and the transition to a dominating R-channel system. The autumn transition is less clearly defined, but has usually occurred by the beginning of November. Stress bridging, an increase in bed pressure at the edge of low-pressure channels, is recorded during the summer regime. Water pressures at the bed are connected or unconnected to the drainage system. Pressure increases in the connected system, beyond local normal stress values, lead to an uplift of the connected system and a pressure drop in the unconnected system. The occurrence of pressure events is determined by the capacity of the drainage system. Uplift is controlled by local normal stress values and not mean ice-overburden pressure.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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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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