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Theses Doctoral

Variability of Subglacial Drainage Across the Greenland Ice Sheet: A Joint Model/Radar Study

Chu, Wing Yin

Over the last several decades, the majority of the Greenland outlet glaciers have accelerated due to the increased warming in both the atmosphere and the oceans around the polar latitudes. While there is a clear overall acceleration trend over this period, there is significant variability in the glacier responses to climate on seasonal and year-to-year timescales. This variability observed around Greenland is very likely tied to the differences in internal dynamics of individual glaciers and the complex interaction with its local environment. Here I investigate the interaction between ice and water along the ice base as an important mechanism contributing to the observed variability among glaciers in Greenland. I use a range of modeling and radar sounding approaches to study the subglacial hydrology for three types of outlet glaciers, including slow moving, marine terminating glaciers in the west, a land-terminating system in the southwest, and a fast moving, marine-terminating glacier in northern Greenland. These case studies allow me to characterize the basal water distribution, its variability throughout the year and how this drainage behavior varies across different regions of Greenland.
To start, I use a hydrological routing model to characterize the subglacial hydrology for three neighboring slow moving (< 100myr−1), marine terminating glaciers in western Greenland. The hydrologic model allows me to examine the sensitivity of basal water routing to subtle changes in basal water pressures. My results reveal that Greenland subglacial drainage can be rerouted across 100’s of km in response to changes in basal water pressures as small as 10%. I conclude that water piracy and subsequent dramatic changes in ice velocity, similar to that observed around the Siple Coast in West Antarctica, can occur in Greenland. Next, I move to a more data-orientated approach and use airborne radar sounding to examine the seasonal variability of basal water distribution. To robustly characterize basal water from radar bed power, I use a novel radar analysis approach that integrates a thermomechanical ice-sheet model to predict the spatial variations of radar attenuation. I improve this approach by including a least-squares minimization to correct for power offsets due to the different radar systems deployed in multiple field seasons.
This improved method is first applied to two land-terminating glaciers in the southwest, Russell Glacier, and Isunnguata Sermia. Using two seasons of radar sounding data, I find that the basal water distribution can change between the wintertime and the summertime. My results reveal that during the winter, water resides primarily in small pockets on top of bedrock ridges. In the summer, these pockets of water on the ridges connect and drain into the nearby basal troughs. This seasonal shift in the basal water distribution is actively controlled by the material properties of the bed. Therefore, in addition to the bed topography, the permeability of the bed and the presence of basal sediments could also exert a critical influence on the seasonal development of subglacial drainage.
Finally, I apply the radar analysis approach to a fast-flowing marine terminating glacier for Petermann Glacier in Northern Greenland. Here I incorporate an additional step to address the spatial variation in ice chemistry and its effect on radar attenuation. I use this approach to examine the relationship between basal water, ice deformation and the onset of glacier flow. In addition to finding basal water in the fastest flowing region near the ice margin, I identify substantial basal water in the ice sheet interior where meltwater must either be related to the advection of water from upstream or be generated by internal heating due to ice deformation. My results show there are three basal water networks beneath Petermann that connect the ice sheet interior to the margin. Together, the interaction between these basal water networks and the ice deformation enhances and sustains fast flow in the interior of the Petermann catchment. Overall, the research presented in this dissertation suggests that subglacial hydrology is high variable in both space and time. This variation in the hydrologic system can influence the fundamental structure of the ice sheet through changing the transport and storage of basal water and through interacting with ice deformation and the thermal properties of the bed.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Bell, Robin E.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 18, 2017