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.
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.
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.