Constructing improved decadal records of Antarctic ice shelf height change from multiple satellite radar altimeters.
Remote Sensing of Environment. 177:192-205. 10.1016/j.rse.2016.01.026 Abstract
Antarctica's ice shelves, the floating extensions of the ice sheet, exert an important dynamic constraint on the flow of ice from the grounded ice sheet to the ocean and, therefore, on changes in global sea level. Thinning of an ice shelf reduces its ability to restrain the ice discharge from the grounded ice sheet. However, our understanding of how ice shelf processes couple ice-sheet changes to climate variability is still rudimentary. In part, this is due to the brevity and low temporal resolution of surveys of ice shelf thickness relative to the broad range of time scales on which ice-sheet mass fluctuates. Here, we present improved procedures to construct 18-year (1994–2012) time series of Antarctic ice shelf surface height at high spatial resolution (~30 km) by merging data from three overlapping satellite radar altimeter missions (ERS-1, ERS-2, and Envisat). We apply an averaging scheme to enhance the signal-to-noise ratio of height changes over the floating ice shelves, and extract low-order polynomial trends using a robust approach (regularized regression with cross-validation) that accounts for both bias and variance in the fit. We construct formal confidence intervals by bootstrap resampling of the residuals of the fit. The largest source of height error arises from the interaction of the radar signal with the snow and firn surface; on annual time scales, changes in surface and sub-surface scattering and radar penetration lead to apparent height changes that are larger than the true surface-height change arising from densification. Our 18-year time series of surface height provide an insight into how ice shelves respond to the changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions. Our methods could also be applied to grounded portions of the ice sheets, both in Antarctica and Greenland.
Episodic ice velocity fluctuations triggered by a subglacial flood in West Antarctica.
Geophysical Research Letters. 43:2640-2648. 10.1002/2016gl067758 Abstract
Height change anomalies in satellite altimeter data have been interpreted as the surface expressions of basal water moving into and out of subglacial lakes. These signals have been mapped throughout Antarctica on timescales of months to years, but only broad connections have been made between active lakes and ice dynamics. We present the first high-frequency observations of ice velocity evolution due to a cascading subglacial lake drainage event, collected over 5years (2010-2015) using Global Positioning System data on Whillans and Mercer ice streams, West Antarctica. We observed three episodic ice velocity changes over 2years, where flow speed increased by up to 4%, as well as an 11month disruption of the tidally modulated stick-slip cycle that dominates regional ice motion. Our observations reveal that basal conditions of an Antarctic ice stream can rapidly evolve and drive a dynamic ice response on subannual timescales, which can bias observations used to infer long-term ice sheet changes.
Impacts of warm water on Antarctic ice shelf stability through basal channel formation.
Nature Geosci. advance online publication: Nature Publishing Group 10.1038/ngeo2675 Abstract
Antarctica’s ice shelves provide resistance to the flow of grounded ice towards the ocean. If this resistance is decreased as a result of ice shelf thinning or disintegration1, acceleration of grounded ice can occur, increasing rates of sea-level rise. Loss of ice shelf mass is accelerating, especially in West Antarctica, where warm seawater is reaching ocean cavities beneath ice shelves2. Here we use satellite imagery, airborne ice-penetrating radar and satellite laser altimetry spanning the period from 2002 to 2014 to map extensive basal channels in the ice shelves surrounding Antarctica. The highest density of basal channels is found in West Antarctic ice shelves. Within the channels, warm water flows northwards, eroding the ice shelf base and driving channel evolution on annual to decadal timescales. Our observations show that basal channels are associated with the development of new zones of crevassing, suggesting that these channels may cause ice fracture. We conclude that basal channels can form and grow quickly as a result of warm ocean water intrusion, and that they can structurally weaken ice shelves, potentially leading to rapid ice shelf loss in some areas.
A decade of progress in observing and modelling Antarctic subglacial water systems.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society a-Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences. 374 10.1098/rsta.2014.0294 Abstract
In the decade since the discovery of active Antarctic subglacial water systems by detection of subtle surface displacements, much progress has been made in our understanding of these dynamic systems. Here, we present some of the key results of observations derived from ICESat laser altimetry, CryoSat-2 radar altimetry, Operation IceBridge airborne laser altimetry, satellite image differencing and ground-based continuous Global Positioning System (GPS) experiments deployed in hydrologically active regions. These observations provide us with an increased understanding of various lake systems in Antarctica: Whillans/Mercer Ice Streams, Crane Glacier, Recovery Ice Stream, Byrd Glacier and eastern Wilkes Land. In several cases, subglacial water systems are shown to control ice flux through the glacier system. For some lake systems, we have been able to construct more than a decade of continuous lake activity, revealing internal variability on time scales ranging from days to years. This variability indicates that continuous, accurate time series of altimetry data are critical to understanding these systems. On Whillans Ice Stream, our results from a 5-year continuous GPS record demonstrate that subglacial lake flood events significantly change the regional ice dynamics. We also show how models for subglacial water flow have evolved since the availability of observations of lake volume change, from regional-scale models of water routeing to process models of channels carved into the subglacial sediment instead of the overlying ice. We show that progress in understanding the processes governing lake drainage now allows us to create simulated lake volume time series that reproduce time series from satellite observations. This transformational decade in Antarctic subglacial water research has moved us significantly closer to understanding the processes of water transfer sufficiently for inclusion in continental-scale ice-sheet models.
High basal melting forming a channel at the grounding line of Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica.
Geophysical Research Letters. 43:250-255. 10.1002/2015gl066612 Abstract
Antarctica's ice shelves are thinning at an increasing rate, affecting their buttressing ability. Channels in the ice shelf base unevenly distribute melting, and their evolution provides insight into changing subglacial and oceanic conditions. Here we used phase-sensitive radar measurements to estimate basal melt rates in a channel beneath the currently stable Ross Ice Shelf. Melt rates of 22.20.2ma(-1) (>2500% the overall background rate) were observed 1.7km seaward of Mercer/Whillans Ice Stream grounding line, close to where subglacial water discharge is expected. Laser altimetry shows a corresponding, steadily deepening surface channel. Two relict channels to the north suggest recent subglacial drainage reorganization beneath Whillans Ice Stream approximately coincident with the shutdown of Kamb Ice Stream. This rapid channel formation implies that shifts in subglacial hydrology may impact ice shelf stability.
Subglacial Lake Whillans microbial biogeochemistry: a synthesis of current knowledge.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society a-Mathematical Physical and Engineering Sciences. 374 10.1098/rsta.2014.0290 Abstract
Liquid water occurs below glaciers and ice sheets globally, enabling the existence of an array of aquatic microbial ecosystems. In Antarctica, large subglacial lakes are present beneath hundreds to thousands of metres of ice, and scientific interest in exploring these environments has escalated over the past decade. After years of planning, the first team of scientists and engineers cleanly accessed and retrieved pristine samples from a West Antarctic subglacial lake ecosystem in January 2013. This paper reviews the findings to date on Subglacial Lake Whillans and presents new supporting data on the carbon and energy metabolism of resident microbes. The analysis of water and sediments from the lake revealed a diverse microbial community composed of bacteria and archaea that are close relatives of species known to use reduced N, S or Fe and CH4 as energy sources. The water chemistry of Subglacial Lake Whillans was dominated by weathering products from silicate minerals with a minor influence from seawater. Contributions to water chemistry from microbial sulfide oxidation and carbonation reactions were supported by genomic data. Collectively, these results provide unequivocal evidence that subglacial environments in this region of West Antarctica host active microbial ecosystems that participate in subglacial biogeochemical cycling.