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Recharge of a subglacial lake by surface meltwater in northeast Greenland


In a warming climate, surface meltwater production on large ice sheets is expected to increase. If this water is delivered to the ice sheet base it may have important consequences for ice dynamics. For example, basal water distributed in a diffuse network can decrease basal friction1,2 and accelerate ice flow3,4,5,6,7,8, whereas channelized basal water can move quickly to the ice margin, where it can alter fjord circulation and submarine melt rates9,10. Less certain is whether surface meltwater can be trapped and stored in subglacial lakes beneath large ice sheets. Here we show that a subglacial lake in Greenland drained quickly, as seen in the collapse of the ice surface, and then refilled from surface meltwater input. We use digital elevation models from stereo satellite imagery and airborne measurements to resolve elevation changes during the evolution of the surface and basal hydrologic systems at the Flade Isblink ice cap in northeast Greenland. During the autumn of 2011, a collapse basin about 70 metres deep and about 0.4 cubic kilometres in volume formed near the southern summit of the ice cap as a subglacial lake drained into a nearby fjord. Over the next two years, rapid uplift of the floor of the basin (which is approximately 8.4 square kilometres in area) occurred as surface meltwater flowed into crevasses around the basin margin and refilled the subglacial lake. Our observations show that surface meltwater can be trapped and stored at the bed of an ice sheet. Sensible and latent heat released by this trapped meltwater could soften nearby colder basal ice11 and alter downstream ice dynamics12,13. Heat transport associated with meltwater trapped in subglacial lakes should be considered when predicting how ice sheet behaviour will change in a warming climate.

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Figure 1: Surface basin, Flade Isblink ice cap, northeast Greenland.
Figure 2: Elevation profiles through time.
Figure 3: Basin uplift rates through time.
Figure 4: Conceptual model of subglacial lake recharge from supraglacial streams at the Flade Isblink ice cap.


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The copyright for the satellite imagery is held by DigitalGlobe, Inc. We thank M. Studinger, T. Wagner, the NASA Operation IceBridge project team and the National Snow and Ice Data Center for the airborne radar and laser altimetry. We thank S. Palmer for providing the European Remote Sensing satellite InSAR DEM. We thank the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Research Computing group for providing computational resources that have contributed to these research results. We thank M. Tedesco and X. Fettweis for help with MAR (Modele Atmospherique Regional) output. We thank T. Pavelsky, B. Mirus and J. Rich for comments and suggestions that improved the paper. This work was supported by US National Science Foundation grant number ARC-1111882. WorldView imagery was provided by the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, which is supported by grant ANT-1043681 from the US National Science Foundation.

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Authors and Affiliations



M.J.W. designed the study, performed the analysis and wrote the paper. B.G.H. produced the diagrams and contributed to the paper. M.G.B. and R.E.B. contributed to the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael J. Willis.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Operation IceBridge radar profile showing ice depths near the southern summit of Flade Isblink ice cap, northeast Greenland.

Modified from a profile of the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder (operated by the University of Kansas)31 over the ‘thumb’ basin collected on 26 April 2013. The NASA IceBridge flight line proceeds from approximately northeast to southwest and is shown in Fig. 1. The purple dotted line is the ice surface; the red dotted line is the ice/bed interface. The ‘thumb’ basin is at 33 km along the flight line and shows an ice depth of 540 m. The propagation delay is the time for the radar to travel from the aircraft to the ice and back; details of its conversion to depth can be found at the MCoRDS technical page: The dielectric constant for ice (er) used during the conversion from propagation delay to ice depth is set to 3.15 m.

Extended Data Figure 2 Surface collapse basin near the ice divide of Flade Isblink ice cap, northeast Greenland.

Photographed from the north by M. Studinger, NASA Operation IceBridge, on 26 April 2013.

Extended Data Figure 3 Collapse basin and northward-flowing supraglacial stream network near the ice divide of Flade Isblink ice cap, northeast Greenland.

Supraglacial water disappears into crevasses at the edge of the basin. WorldView-2 multispectral image from 14 August 2012. Imagery copyright 2012, DigitalGlobe Inc.

Extended Data Figure 4 Elevation changes next to the basin.

a, Repeat elevation profile S to S′, adjacent to the basin, shown in b. Three to six metres of subsidence is seen within a kilometre of the rim of the basin. A crevasse observed in 2012 closes by 2013. The dotted black line is the pre-collapse ice surface elevation modified from ref. 21. The profile is colour-indexed by time of satellite DEM acquisition (scale on right). Uncertainties in elevation are typically less than 0.5 m. b, Location of profile on WorldView DEM.

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Extended Data Table 1 Details of satellite along-track stereo pairs

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Willis, M., Herried, B., Bevis, M. et al. Recharge of a subglacial lake by surface meltwater in northeast Greenland. Nature 518, 223–227 (2015).

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