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.

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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.


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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.

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

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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)

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Wingham, D., Siegert, M., Shepherd, A. et al. Rapid discharge connects Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature 440, 1033–1036 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04660

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