Observed latitudinal variations in erosion as a function of glacier dynamics


Glacial erosion is fundamental to our understanding of the role of Cenozoic-era climate change in the development of topography worldwide, yet the factors that control the rate of erosion by ice remain poorly understood. In many tectonically active mountain ranges, glaciers have been inferred to be highly erosive, and conditions of glaciation are used to explain both the marked relief typical of alpine settings and the limit on mountain heights above the snowline, that is, the glacial buzzsaw1. In other high-latitude regions, glacial erosion is presumed to be minimal, where a mantle of cold ice effectively protects landscapes from erosion2,3,4. Glacial erosion rates are expected to increase with decreasing latitude, owing to the climatic control on basal temperature and the production of meltwater, which promotes glacial sliding, erosion and sediment transfer. This relationship between climate, glacier dynamics and erosion rate is the focus of recent numerical modelling5,6,7,8, yet it is qualitative and lacks an empirical database. Here we present a comprehensive data set that permits explicit examination of the factors controlling glacier erosion across climatic regimes. We report contemporary ice fluxes, sliding speeds and erosion rates inferred from sediment yields from 15 outlet glaciers spanning 19 degrees of latitude from Patagonia to the Antarctic Peninsula. Although this broad region has a relatively uniform tectonic and geologic history, the thermal regimes of its glaciers range from temperate to polar. We find that basin-averaged erosion rates vary by three orders of magnitude over this latitudinal transect. Our findings imply that climate and the glacier thermal regime control erosion rates more than do extent of ice cover, ice flux or sliding speeds.

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Figure 1: Location map of study area, from northern Patagonia to central Antarctic Peninsula.
Figure 2: Erosion rate as a function of latitude, climate and dynamics of 13 outlet glaciers.


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This research was funded by the US National Science Foundation (OPP 0338371). We thank the crews of the ice breaker RV Nathaniel B. Palmer and the MV Petrel IV, members of Waters of Patagonia, support staff from Raytheon Polar Services, and collaborators from the Centro de Estudios Cientificos in Valdivia, Chile, the University of Washington, Rice University and the University of Houston for assisting in deployments, sampling and analysis of the sediment cores, bathymetric data, ice front geometries and acoustic reflection profiles collected during the cruises. We particularly thank J. Anderson, A. Rivera, M. Jaffrey, J. Evans and T. Verzone for help and logistical support in the field; R. Sylwester for his contribution to the collection of acoustic reflection profiles in Chile; C. Nittrouer, B. Forrest, C. Landowski, J. Berquist and T. Drexler for processing and analysing the sediment cores; T. Pratt for processing of acoustic profiles in Jorge Montt; J. Anderson and R. Fernandez for supporting data and discussions; C. Brookfield for editing and insight; R. Jaña at INACH for provision of Landsat imagery of the Antarctic Peninsula; and M. Jaffrey, J. Newton and A. Winter-Billington for help with statistical analyses.

Author information




M.K., B.H. and J.S.W., together with J. Anderson, designed the study. M.K. conducted all analyses of glaciological and erosion-rate data, and prepared the manuscript. E.R. and J.M. contributed the ice-velocity measurements. K.B. contributed the accumulation-rate results, and provided new data for Jorge Montt Glacier. J.S.W. and K.B. analysed the bathymetric data, acoustic profiles and sediment cores in the Antarctic Peninsula fjords. All authors contributed to discussions and interpretations.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michéle Koppes.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Erosion rate versus sliding velocity for 13 outlet glaciers.

A log–log plot, showing a general power-law relationship between erosion and basal ice motion, and two outliers: Fourcade Glacier (FOUR) and Tyndall Glacier (TYN). The nonlinear least-squares best-fit estimate using all glaciers yields an exponent n = 2.34 and intercept Kg = 5.2 × 10−8 (r2 = 0.39); excluding the two outliers, the fit improves, with n = 2.62 and intercept Kg = 5.3× 10−9 (r2 = 0.62).

Extended Data Figure 2 Ice motion for outlet glaciers of Patagonia and western Antarctic Peninsula.

ah, Glacier catchment areas (within the black outline) with InSAR-derived ice velocities (in km yr−1) from 2007–2008 superimposed (indicated by the colour scale). The InSAR velocity maps are modified from data from refs 43 and 44. White dots indicate the location of the cores in ice-proximal depocentres from which accumulation rates were measured (see refs 20, 27 and 49). Catchment areas shown are San Rafael (a), Jorge Montt (b), Europa (c), Tyndall (d), Charlotte Bay (e), Beascochea Bay (f), Hughes Bay (g), and Andvord and Flandres Bays (h).

Extended Data Figure 3 Surface elevation and time series of surface velocity along the central flowline for Europa Glacier, South Patagonian Icefield.

The black dashed line is the elevation profile from the terminus, derived from the 2001 SRTM DEM. Flow speeds were measured along the centreline from InSAR repeat image pairs (see ref. 43), coloured according to the year the data were acquired. Inset is Extended Data Fig. 2c, with the overlaid white dashed line indicating the centreline of the glacier.

Extended Data Figure 4 Ice thickness and surface velocity across Fourcade Glacier, King George Island.

The red line indicated the glacier catchment area in 2007; the black dashed line shows the path of the ice-penetrating radar; and the grey dashed line is the ELA (approximately 250 m above sea level). Surface velocities from dGPS of velocity stakes (April 2007) are in black and ice thickness measurements from ice-penetrating radar are in blue. Base indicates location of dGPS base station.

Extended Data Figure 5 Ice-front cross-sectional areas of the polar glaciers of the western Antarctic Peninsula.

ag, The light blue lines are the ice cliff heights above the water line and the dark blue lines are the submarine ice faces from the swath bathymetry; m.a.s.l., metres above sea level. Dashed lines indicate interpolated ice thicknesses between known points. For all glaciers, the ELA is located at the calving front. Measurements are for Cayley Glacier, Hughes Bay (a), Breguet Glacier, Hughes Bay (b), Renard and Krebs glaciers, Charlotte Bay (c), Bagshawe Glacier, Andvord Bay (d), Funk Glacier, Beascochea Bay (e), Lever Glacier, Beascochea Bay (f) and Cadman Glacier, Beascochea Bay (g).

Extended Data Figure 6 Glacier and fjord catchment area for Marinelli Glacier, Cordillera Darwin Icefield.

The glacier catchment area in 2009 is indicated by the red line; the location of Little Ice Age moraine from which the glacier terminus retreated around 1960 is indicated by the yellow dashed line; the inner basin of the fjord where acoustic reflection profiles captured total sediment volume since 1960 is indicated by the appropriate arrow (see ref. 11); and the white dot indicates the location of the sediment core in the distal depocentre from which the distal accumulation rate was measured (see ref. 20).

Extended Data Table 1 Glacier characteristics and corresponding erosion rates in Chilean Patagonia and the Antarctic Peninsula.

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Koppes, M., Hallet, B., Rignot, E. et al. Observed latitudinal variations in erosion as a function of glacier dynamics. Nature 526, 100–103 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature15385

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