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Ice stream activity scaled to ice sheet volume during Laurentide Ice Sheet deglaciation


The contribution of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets to sea level has increased in recent decades, largely owing to the thinning and retreat of outlet glaciers and ice streams1,2,3,4. This dynamic loss is a serious concern, with some modelling studies suggesting that the collapse of a major ice sheet could be imminent5,6 or potentially underway7 in West Antarctica, but others predicting a more limited response8. A major problem is that observations used to initialize and calibrate models typically span only a few decades, and, at the ice-sheet scale, it is unclear how the entire drainage network of ice streams evolves over longer timescales. This represents one of the largest sources of uncertainty when predicting the contributions of ice sheets to sea-level rise8,9,10. A key question is whether ice streams might increase and sustain rates of mass loss over centuries or millennia, beyond those expected for a given ocean–climate forcing5,6,7,8,9,10. Here we reconstruct the activity of 117 ice streams that operated at various times during deglaciation of the Laurentide Ice Sheet (from about 22,000 to 7,000 years ago) and show that as they activated and deactivated in different locations, their overall number decreased, they occupied a progressively smaller percentage of the ice sheet perimeter and their total discharge decreased. The underlying geology and topography clearly influenced ice stream activity, but—at the ice-sheet scale—their drainage network adjusted and was linked to changes in ice sheet volume. It is unclear whether these findings can be directly translated to modern ice sheets. However, contrary to the view that sees ice streams as unstable entities that can accelerate ice-sheet deglaciation, we conclude that ice streams exerted progressively less influence on ice sheet mass balance during the retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet.

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Figure 1: Ice flow velocity of the Antarctic ice sheet compared (at the same spatial scale) with reconstructions of ice stream activity in the LIS at selected time steps.
Figure 2: Duration of individual ice streams in the LIS.
Figure 3: Ice stream activity during deglaciation of the LIS.
Figure 4: Indicators of Laurentide ice stream activity plotted against ice sheet volume.


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This research was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council award NE/J00782X/1 (C.R.S. and C.D.C.). Landsat imagery and the GTOPO30 digital elevation model were provided free of charge by the US Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation Science Centre.

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Authors and Affiliations



C.R.S. designed the study and wrote the proposal with C.D.C. M.M. generated the data on the timing of Laurentide ice streams, modern-ice stream discharge and Laurentide ice stream discharge, and produced the figures, with input from C.R.S. and C.D.C. L.T. contributed data from numerical modelling. All authors contributed to the analyses and interpretations of the data. C.R.S. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors.

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Correspondence to C. R. Stokes.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Location of 117 ice streams from a recently compiled inventory based on previous work and systematic mapping across the LIS bed.

Ice streams are shaded dark blue and numbered according to their inventory14 number. Orange dashed lines with arrows show ice stream flow direction. Modern-day ice velocity is shown for Greenland44,45. Underlying topography from GTOPO30 digital elevation data47.

Extended Data Figure 2 Distribution of dates and interpolated ice margin positions.

These ice margin positions15 (thin red lines) are based on dates (black dots) that we used to bracket the age of the spatial footprint of each Laurentide ice stream (Extended Data Fig. 7). The thick red line shows the updated LGM ice margin (following recent work48,49,50,51,52,53,54). Underlying topography from GTOPO30 digital elevation data47. m a.s.l., metres above sea level.

Extended Data Figure 3 Number of Laurentide ice streams and the percentage of the margin they drained over time, classified according to their underlying geology.

a, A rapid decrease in the number of ice streams is observed after about 12 kyr ago (Fig. 3a), which is linked with the retreat of the LIS onto the hard crystalline rocks of the Canadian Shield19 (cal kyr bp refers to thousands of calendar years before present). b, However, several large, wide ice streams were active over the hard bed geology (see, for example, refs 10, 21), and they drained a large percentage of the perimeter of the ice sheet.

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Extended Data Figure 4 Mega-scale glacial lineations34 on the bed of the Dubawnt Lake ice stream21, central Canada.

ac, These features are a characteristic geomorphological signature of ice streaming and are readily identifiable on Landsat satellite imagery (a, c) and oblique aerial photography (b) of the ice stream bed (number 6 in Extended Data Fig. 1). d, Similar features have been detected beneath Rutford ice stream, West Antarctica35. Landsat imagery courtesy of the US Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation Science Centre; photograph by C.R.S. Images in c and d modified from ref. 35.

Extended Data Figure 5 Landsat imagery of lateral shear margin moraines in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

a, b, Beds of the M’Clintock Channel ice stream36,37, Victoria Island (a; number 10 in Extended Data Fig. 1) and the Crooked Lake Ice Stream33, Prince of Wales Island (b; number 11 in Extended Data Fig. 1). Note the abrupt lateral margins (marked by white arrows) of the assemblage of mega-scale glacial lineations that are, in places, marked by lateral shear margin moraines38.

Extended Data Figure 6 Bathymetric data showing cross-shelf troughs and a well-preserved bedform imprint from a submarine setting.

a, Cross-shelf troughs formed by ice streams fed by convergence of ice flow from several fjords along the east coast of Baffin Island. b, c, Drumlins and mega-scale glacial lineations on the floor of Eclipse Sound (b; boxed area in a) and a close-up view of one particular region where subglacial bedforms are well developed (c; boxed area in b). High-resolution swath bathymetry data are from IBCAO55 (a), and from IBCAO55 and ArcticNet56 (b, c). Figure redrawn from ref. 57.

Extended Data Figure 7 Schematic demonstrating the method used to bracket the age of the spatial footprint of Laurentide ice streams in both terrestrial and marine settings.

These methods have been used extensively in previous work, but usually on small samples of ice streams (see, for example, refs 20, 21, 36, 37, 42, 43). a, In some cases, terrestrial ice streams are active, but then deactivate (switch off) as the ice margin retreats, which enables them to be bracketed between a small number of dated ice margins and implies a short duration of operation. b, In other cases, ice streams remain active during deglaciation and continually remould their landform assemblage, leaving a more complicated, time-integrated landform record, often with a series of overprinted landforms, which implies a longer duration of operation. c, d, The same scenarios as in a and b, respectively, but for a topographically controlled marine-terminating ice stream.

Extended Data Figure 8 Location of ice streams in Antarctica where discharge was estimated.

Discharge was estimated from existing data sets of velocity11,46, grounding-line position58 and ice thickness30. Regression analysis reveals a weak relationship between the width and discharge of the ice streams (Extended Data Fig. 10), which we used to estimate the discharge of Laurentide ice streams for which we know only their width (see Methods).

Extended Data Figure 9 Location of ice streams in Greenland where discharge was estimated.

Discharge was estimated from existing data sets of velocity44,45, grounding-line position44,45 and ice thickness29. Regression analysis reveals a weak relationship between the width and discharge of the ice streams (Extended Data Fig. 10), which we used to estimate the discharge of Laurentide ice streams for which we know only their width (see Methods).

Extended Data Figure 10 Relationship between ice stream discharge and width for 81 active ice streams in Antarctica and Greenland.

Discharge calculations derived from velocity data from 2008–2009 (Greenland, green dots)44,45 and 2007–2009 (Antarctica, blue dots)11,46,58. Grey shading shows the 95% confidence interval of the linear regression. Measured ice stream locations are shown in Extended Data Figs 8 and 9.

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Stokes, C., Margold, M., Clark, C. et al. Ice stream activity scaled to ice sheet volume during Laurentide Ice Sheet deglaciation. Nature 530, 322–326 (2016).

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