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Basal melt rates beneath Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica

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Basal water lubricates and enables the fast flow of the West Antarctic ice streams which exist under low gravitational driving stress. Identification of sources and rates of basal meltwater production can provide insight into the dynamics of ice streams and the subglacial hydrology, which remain insufficiently described by glaciological theory. Combining measurements and analytic modeling, we identify two regions where basal meltwater is produced beneath Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica. Downstream of the onset of shear crevasses, strong basal melt (20–50 mm a−1) is concentrated beneath the relatively narrow shear margins. Farther upstream, melt rates are consistently 3–7 mm a−1 across the width of the ice stream. We show that the transition in melt-rate patterns is coincident with the onset of shear margin crevassing and streaming flow and related to the development of significant lateral shear resistance, which reorganizes the resistive stress regime and induces a concentration of basal resistance adjacent to the shear margin. Finally, we discuss how downstream freeze-on in the ice-stream center coupled with melt beneath the shear margin might result in a slowing but widening ice stream.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: October 1, 2010

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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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