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Switch of flow direction in an Antarctic ice stream


Fast-flowing ice streams transport ice from the interior of West Antarctica to the ocean, and fluctuations in their activity control the mass balance of the ice sheet. The mass balance of the Ross Sea sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now positive—that is, it is growing—mainly because one of the ice streams (ice stream C) slowed down about 150 years ago1. Here we present evidence from both surface measurements and remote sensing that demonstrates the highly dynamic nature of the Ross drainage system. We show that the flow in an area that once discharged into ice stream C has changed direction, now draining into the Whillans ice stream (formerly ice stream B). This switch in flow direction is a result of continuing thinning of the Whillans ice stream and recent thickening of ice stream C. Further abrupt reorganization of the activity and configuration of the ice streams over short timescales is to be expected in the future as the surface topography of the ice sheet responds to the combined effects of internal dynamics and long-term climate change. We suggest that caution is needed when using observations of short-term mass changes to draw conclusions about the large-scale mass balance of the ice sheet.

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Figure 1: Satellite image of the Ross Sea ice drainage system in West Antarctica.
Figure 2: Flow features at the eastern end of Ridge BC (location shown in Fig. 1).
Figure 3: Ice-penetrating radar profiles along A–A′ in Fig. 2.


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We thank Raytheon Polar Services for logistical support in Antarctica, and C. R. Bentley, M. Conway, N. Lord and B. Smith for contributions. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to H. Conway.

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Conway, H., Catania, G., Raymond, C. et al. Switch of flow direction in an Antarctic ice stream. Nature 419, 465–467 (2002).

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