Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Rapid discharge connects Antarctic subglacial lakes


The existence of many subglacial lakes1 provides clear evidence for the widespread presence of water beneath the East Antarctic ice sheet, but the hydrology beneath this ice mass is poorly understood2. Such knowledge is critical to understanding ice flow, basal water transfer to the ice margin, glacial landform development and subglacial lake habitats. Here we present ice-sheet surface elevation changes in central East Antarctica that we interpret to represent rapid discharge from a subglacial lake. Our observations indicate that during a period of 16 months, 1.8 km3 of water was transferred over 290 km to at least two other subglacial lakes. While viscous deformation of the ice roof above may moderate discharge, the intrinsic instability of such a system3 suggests that discharge events are a common mode of basal drainage4. If large lakes, such as Lake Vostok or Lake Concordia1, are pressurizing, it is possible that substantial discharges could reach the coast5,6. Our observations conflict with expectations that subglacial lakes have long residence times and slow circulations2,7,8, and we suggest that entire subglacial drainage basins may be flushed periodically. The rapid transfer of water between lakes would result in large-scale solute and microbe relocation, and drainage system contamination from in situ exploration is, therefore, a distinct risk.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: The origin and flow of an East Antarctic subglacial lake discharge.
Figure 2: ERS-2 altimetric data from the four sites, L1, U1, U2 and U3, located in Fig. 1.


  1. Siegert, M. J., Carter, S., Tabacco, I., Popov, S. & Blankenship, D. A revised inventory of Antarctic subglacial lakes. Antarct. Sci. 17, 453–460 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Siegert, M. J. et al. Physical, chemical and biological processes in Lake Vostok and other Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature 414, 603–609 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Nye, J. F. Water flow in glaciers, jökulhlaups, tunnels and veins. J. Glaciol. 17, 181–207 (1976)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Fowler, A. C. Breaking the seal at Grimsvotn, Iceland. J. Glaciol. 45, 506–516 (1999)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Denton, G. E. & Sugden, D. E. Meltwater features that suggest Miocene ice-sheet overriding of the Transantarctic Mountains in Victoria Land, Antarctica. Geograf. Ann. 87, 67–85 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Sawagaki, T. & Hirakawa, K. Erosion of bedrock by subglacial meltwater, Soya Coast, East Antarctica. Geograf. Ann. 79, 223–238 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Kapitsa, A., Ridley, J. K., Robin, G. de Q., Siegert, M. J. & Zotikov, I. Large deep freshwater lake beneath the ice of central East Antarctica. Nature 381, 684–686 (1996)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Bell, R. E. et al. Origin and fate of Lake Vostok water refrozen to the base of the East Antarctic ice sheet. Nature 416, 307–310 (2002)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Siegert, M. J., Taylor, J. & Payne, A. J. Spectral roughness of subglacial topography and implications for former ice-sheet dynamics in East Antarctica. Glob. Planet. Change 45, 249–263 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Shreve, R. L. Movement of water in glaciers. J. Glaciol. 11, 205–214 (1972)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Wingham, D. J., Ridout, A., Scharroo, R., Arthern, R. & Shum, C. K. Antarctic elevation change from 1992 to 1996. Science 282, 456–458 (1998)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Gray, L. et al. Evidence for subglacial water transport in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet through three-dimensional satellite radar interferometry. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L03501, doi:10.1029/2004GL021387 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Joughin, I., Kwok, R. & Fahnestock, M. Estimation of ice-sheet motion using satellite radar interferometry: Method and error analysis with application to Humboldt Glacier, Greenland. J. Glaciol. 42, 564–575 (1996)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Roberts, M. J. Jokulhlaups: a reassessment of floodwater flow through glaciers. Rev. Geophys. 43, doi:10.1029/2003RG000147 (2005)

  15. van der Veen, C. J. Fundamentals of Glacier Dynamics 1–462 (Balkema, Rotterdam, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  16. Björnsson, H. Hydrological characteristics of the drainage system beneath a surging glacier. Nature 395, 771–774 (1998)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Kamb, B. Glacier surge mechanism based on linked cavity configuration of the basal water conduit system. J. Geophys. Res. 92, 9083–9100 (1987)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Lythe, M. B., Vaughan, D. G. & the BEDMAP consortium. Bedmap–Bed Topography of the Antarctic. 1:10,000,000 map. Misc. 9 (British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  19. Huybrechts, P. The Antarctic ice sheet and environmental change: a three dimensional modelling study. Rep. Polar Res. 99, 1–241 (Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar und Meeresforschung, 1992)

    Google Scholar 

  20. Studinger, M., Bell, R. E. & Tikku, A. A. Estimating the depth and shape of subglacial Lake Vostok's water cavity from aerogravity data. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L12401, doi:10.1029/2004GL019801(2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. McKay, C. P., Hand, K. P., Doran, P. T., Andersen, D. T. & Priscu, J. C. Clathrate formation and the fate of noble and biologically useful gases in Lake Vostok, Antarctica. Geophys. Res. Lett. 30, doi:10.1029/2003GL017490 (2003)

  22. Royston-Bishop, G., Tranter, M., Siegert, M. J., Lee, V. & Bates, P. D. Is Vostok lake in steady state? Ann. Glaciol. 39, 490–494 (2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank A. Fowler and I. Joughin for their insights and A. Payne and A. Le Brocq for assistance with the calculation of water flow paths. Funding for this work was provided by the NERC Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling. Author Contributions D.J.W. identified altimetric changes across the study region and undertook the calculations of energy exchange and water flow. M.J.S. placed the altimetric changes in the context of subglacial topography and the locations of known subglacial lakes. A.P.S. processed interferometric synthetic aperture radar data in Fig. 1b. A.S.M. processed ERS-2 altimetric records. D.J.W. and M.J.S. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Duncan J. Wingham or Martin J. Siegert.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1

Rapid drainage and hydraulic connection of Antarctic subglacial lakes, inferred from satellite altimetric measurements of the ice sheet surface over the Adventure Subglacial Trench, East Antarctica between 1996 and 2003. (DOC 177 kb)

Supplementary Figure 2

Antarctic subglacial water flowpaths. (DOC 232 kb)

Supplementary Figure 3

ERS-2 InSAR data and altimeter measurements (coloured circles) over Lake L. (DOC 899 kb)

Supplementary Figure 4

A simple model of the exchange between two lakes. (DOC 50 kb)

Supplementary Methods 1

The volume of exchange. (DOC 25 kb)

Supplementary Methods 2

Calculation of Basal Hydraulics. (DOC 165 kb)

Supplementary Methods 3

The periodicity of discharges and the fate of the lake water. (DOC 25 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Wingham, D., Siegert, M., Shepherd, A. et al. Rapid discharge connects Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature 440, 1033–1036 (2006).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing