Transient and Rapid Glacial Motions, including Glacial Earthquakes
This award supports a project to study the mode of formation and causes of glacial earthquakes. The paradigm for glacial flow has been that glaciers flow in a viscous manner, with major changes in the force balance occurring on the decade timescale or longer. The recent discovery of a number of even shorter timescale events has challenged this paradigm. In 2003, it was discovered that Whillans Ice Stream in West Antarctica displays stick-slip behavior on the 10-30 minute timescale, with ice stream speed increasing by a factor of 30 from already high speeds. In the past year, the minimum timescale has been pushed shorter by recognition that a class of recently discovered 50-second-long, magnitude-5 earthquakes are closely associated with changes in the force balance near the calving fronts of large outlet glaciers in both Greenland and East Antarctica. With no adequate theory existing to explain these relatively large earthquakes associated with outlet glaciers, we have begun to investigate the physical mechanisms that must be involved in allowing such a response in a system traditionally not thought capable of generating large variations in forces over timescales less than 100 seconds. The intellectual merit of the work is that large-amplitude, short-timescale variability of glaciers is an important mode of glacier dynamics that has not yet been understood from a first-principles physics perspective. The proposed research addresses this gap in understanding, tying together knowledge from numerous disciplines including glaciology, seismology and fault rupture dynamics, laboratory rock physics, granular flow, fracture mechanics, and hydrogeology. The broader impacts of the work are that there is societal as well as general scientific interest in the stability of the major ice sheets. However, without an understanding of the physical processes governing short time scale variability, it is unlikely that we will be able accurately predict the future of these ice sheets and their impact on sea level changes. The project will also contribute to the development and education of young scientists.
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