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Large subglacial lakes in East Antarctica at the onset of fast-flowing ice streams


Water plays a crucial role in ice-sheet stability and the onset of ice streams. Subglacial lake water moves between lakes1 and rapidly drains, causing catastrophic floods2. The exact mechanisms by which subglacial lakes influence ice-sheet dynamics are unknown, however, and large subglacial lakes3,4 have not been closely associated with rapidly flowing ice streams. Here we use satellite imagery and ice-surface elevations to identify a region of subglacial lakes, similar in total area to Lake Vostok, at the onset region of the Recovery Glacier ice stream in East Antarctica and predicted by ice-sheet models5. We define four lakes through extensive, flat, featureless regions of ice surface bounded by upstream troughs and downstream ridges. Using ice velocities determined using interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR), we find the onset of rapid flow (moving at 20 to 30 m yr-1) of the tributaries to the Recovery Glacier ice stream in a 280-km-wide segment at the downslope margins of these four subglacial lakes. We conclude that the subglacial lakes initiate and maintain rapid ice flow through either active modification of the basal thermal regime of the ice sheet by lake accretion or through scouring bedrock channels in periodic drainage events. We suggest that the role of subglacial lakes needs to be considered in ice-sheet mass balance assessments.

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Figure 1: RADARSAT image of the Recovery ice stream catchment with 250 m ice-surface contours (white) on the basis of the ICESat-derived digital elevation model.
Figure 2: InSAR ice velocity data and surface imagery of the Recovery ice stream catchment.
Figure 3: Detailed elevation profiles across the Recovery subglacial lakes and known lakes.

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We thank G. K. C. Clarke and R. Bindschadler for comments on an earlier version. A 2003 presentation prepared by G. Leitchenkov for the SCAR SALE meeting stimulated this effort. J. Clough, C. Bentley, L. Kissel of the Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program and B. R. Bell facilitated the rescue of the radar and seismic data along the Recovery subglacial lakes portion of the 1964–1966 QML Traverse route. Technical assistance with the ICESat, RAMP and MODIS data was provided by V. Suchdeo. R.E.B. and M.S. were supported by the Doherty Endowment of LDEO and the Palisades Geophysical Institute. M.A.F., C.A.S. and I.J. were supported by NASA’s Cryospheric programme. The US National Science Foundation provided support for the fundamental studies of Lake Vostok.

Author Contributions All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. R.E.B. led the development of this paper and the integration of the results, M.S. analysed the surface traverse data and modelled the gravity data, C.A.S. led the ICESat, RAMP and MODIS integration and interpretation, M.A.F. contributed to the visible-band image analysis and the conceptual models of the onset mechanism and I.J. provided the InSAR ice velocities.

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Correspondence to Robin E. Bell.

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Bell, R., Studinger, M., Shuman, C. et al. Large subglacial lakes in East Antarctica at the onset of fast-flowing ice streams. Nature 445, 904–907 (2007).

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