High Resolution Heterogeneity at the Base of Whillans Ice Stream and its Control on Ice Dynamics
Ice fracturing plays a crucial role in mechanical processes that influence the contribution of glaciers and ice sheets to the global sea-level rise. Such processes include, among others, ice shelf disintegration, iceberg calving, and fast ice sliding. Over the last century, seismology developed highly sensitive instrumentation and sophisticated data processing techniques to study earthquakes. This interdisciplinary project used seismological research methods to investigate fracturing beneath and within ice on a fast-moving ice stream in West Antarctica that is experiencing rapid sliding and flexure driven by ocean tides. Data were collected from two strategically located clusters of seismometers. One was located in the epicenter zone where tidally triggered rapid sliding events of the ice stream start. The other was placed in the grounding zone, where the ice stream flexes with tides where it goes afloat and becomes an ice shelf. Seismometers in the epicenter cluster recorded many thousands of microearthquakes coming from beneath ice during ice stream sliding events. Analyses of these microearthquakes suggest that the geologic materials beneath the ice stream are fracturing. The spatial pattern of fracturing is not random but forms elongated stripes that resemble well-known glacial landforms called megascale glacial lineations. These findings indicate that the frictional resistance to ice sliding may change through time due to these landforms changing as a result of erosion and sedimentation beneath ice. This may have implications for the rate of ice loss from Antarctic ice streams that drain about 90% of all ice discharged into the Southern Ocean. In addition to microearthquakes, the epicenter cluster of seismometers also recorded vibrations (tremors) from beneath the ice stream. These may be caused by the rapid repetition of many microearthquakes coming from the same source. The grounding zone cluster of seismometers recorded many thousands of microearthquakes as well. However, they are caused by ice fracturing near the ice stream's surface rather than at its base. These microearthquakes originate when the grounding zone experiences strong tension caused by ice flexure during dropping ocean tide. This tension causes the opening of near-surface fractures (crevasses) just before the lowest tide, rather than at the lowest tide as expected from elasticity of solids. This unexpected timing of ice fracturing indicates that ice in the grounding zone behaves like a viscoelastic material, i.e., partly like a solid and partly like a fluid. This is an important general finding that will be useful to other scientists who are modeling interactions of ice with ocean water in the Antarctic grounding zones. Overall, the observed pervasive fracturing in the grounding zone, where an ice stream becomes an ice shelf, may make ice shelves potentially vulnerable to catastrophic collapses. It also may weaken ice shelves and make it easier for large icebergs to break off at their fronts. In addition to Antarctic research, this award supported education and outreach activities, including presentations and field trips during several summer schools at UCSC for talented and diverse high school students. The students were exposed to glaciological and seismological concepts and performed hands-on scientific exercises. The field trips focused on the marine terrace landscape around Santa Cruz. This landscape resulted from interactions between the uplift of rocks along the San Andreas fault with global-sea level changes caused by the waxing and waning of polar ice sheets in response to Ice Age climate cycles.
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