Project Information
NSFGEO-NERC: Investigating the Direct Influence of Meltwater on Antarctic Ice Sheet Dynamics
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End Date:
When ice sheets and glaciers lose ice faster than it accumulates from snowfall, they shrink and contribute to sea-level rise. This has consequences for coastal communities around the globe by, for example, increasing the frequency of damaging storm surges. Sea-level rise is already underway and a major challenge for the geoscience community is improving predictions of how this will evolve. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest potential contributor to sea-level rise and its future is highly uncertain. It loses ice through two main mechanisms: the formation of icebergs and melting at the base of floating ice shelves on its periphery. Ice flows under gravity towards the ocean and the rate of ice flow controls how fast ice sheets and glaciers shrink. In Greenland and Antarctica, ice flow is focused into outlet glaciers and ice streams, which flow much faster than surrounding areas. Moreover, parts of the Greenland Ice Sheet speed up and slow down substantially on hourly to seasonal time scales, particularly where meltwater from the surface reaches the base of the ice. Meltwater reaching the base changes ice flow by altering basal water pressure and consequently the friction exerted on the ice by the rock and sediment beneath. This phenomenon has been observed frequently in Greenland but not in Antarctica. Recent satellite observations suggest this phenomenon also occurs on outlet glaciers in the Antarctic Peninsula. Meltwater reaching the base of the Antarctic Ice Sheet is likely to become more common as air temperature and surface melting are predicted to increase around Antarctica this century. This project aims to confirm the recent satellite observations, establish a baseline against which to compare future changes, and improve understanding of the direct influence of meltwater on Antarctic Ice Sheet dynamics. This is a project jointly funded by the National Science Foundation?s Directorate for Geosciences (NSF/GEO) and the National Environment Research Council (NERC) of the United Kingdom (UK) via the NSF/GEO-NERC Lead Agency Agreement. This Agreement allows a single joint US/UK proposal to be submitted and peer-reviewed by the Agency whose investigator has the largest proportion of the budget. Upon successful joint determination of an award recommendation, each Agency funds the proportion of the budget that supports scientists at institutions in their respective countries. This project will include a field campaign on Flask Glacier, an Antarctic Peninsula outlet glacier, and a continent-wide remote sensing survey. These activities will allow the team to test three hypotheses related to the Antarctic Ice Sheet?s dynamic response to surface meltwater: (1) short-term changes in ice velocity indicated by satellite data result from surface meltwater reaching the bed, (2) this is widespread in Antarctica today, and (3) this results in a measurable increase in mean annual ice discharge. The project is a collaboration between US- and UK-based researchers and will be supported logistically by the British Antarctic Survey. The project aims to provide insights into both the drivers and implications of short-term changes in ice flow velocity caused by surface melting. For example, showing conclusively that meltwater directly influences Antarctic ice dynamics would have significant implications for understanding the response of Antarctica to atmospheric warming, as it did in Greenland when the phenomenon was first detected there twenty years ago. This work will also potentially influence other fields, as surface meltwater reaching the bed of the Antarctic Ice Sheet may affect ice rheology, subglacial hydrology, submarine melting, calving, ocean circulation, and ocean biogeochemistry. The project aims to have broader impacts on science and society by supporting early-career scientists, UK-US collaboration, education and outreach, and adoption of open data science approaches within the glaciological community.
Person Role
Kingslake, Jonathan Investigator and contact
Sole, Andrew Co-Investigator
Livingstone, Stephen Co-Investigator
Winter, Kate Co-Investigator
Ely, Jeremy Co-Investigator
Frearson, Nicholas Researcher
Cordero, Isabel Researcher
Antarctic Glaciology Award # 2053169
AMD - DIF Record(s)
Data Management Plan
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