Letter | Published:

Antarctic ice shelf potentially stabilized by export of meltwater in surface river

Nature volume 544, pages 344348 (20 April 2017) | Download Citation


Meltwater stored in ponds1 and crevasses can weaken and fracture ice shelves, triggering their rapid disintegration2. This ice-shelf collapse results in an increased flux of ice from adjacent glaciers3 and ice streams, thereby raising sea level globally4. However, surface rivers forming on ice shelves could potentially export stored meltwater and prevent its destructive effects. Here we present evidence for persistent active drainage networks—interconnected streams, ponds and rivers—on the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica that export a large fraction of the ice shelf’s meltwater into the ocean. We find that active drainage has exported water off the ice surface through waterfalls and dolines for more than a century. The surface river terminates in a 130-metre-wide waterfall that can export the entire annual surface melt over the course of seven days. During warmer melt seasons, these drainage networks adapt to changing environmental conditions by remaining active for longer and exporting more water. Similar networks are present on the ice shelf in front of Petermann Glacier, Greenland, but other systems, such as on the Larsen C and Amery Ice Shelves, retain surface water at present. The underlying reasons for export versus retention remain unclear. Nonetheless our results suggest that, in a future warming climate, surface rivers could export melt off the large ice shelves surrounding Antarctica—contrary to present Antarctic ice-sheet models1, which assume that meltwater is stored on the ice surface where it triggers ice-shelf disintegration.

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This work benefited from input on the Northern Party historical documents from M. Hopper and D. Webster, in addition to assistance from the staff of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under Rosetta Project award 1443534; a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award (DGE-16-44869); a National Science Foundation award (1341688); two NASA awards (IceBridge NNX16AJ65G and NNX14AH79G); a NASA Earth and Space Science fellowship (NNX15AN28H); a grant from the Old York Foundation; and a grant from the Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries (PM16020).

Author information


  1. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Palisades, New York, New York 10964, USA

    • Robin E. Bell
    • , Winnie Chu
    • , Jonathan Kingslake
    • , Indrani Das
    • , Marco Tedesco
    • , Kirsty J. Tinto
    • , Christopher J. Zappa
    •  & Alexandra Boghosian
  2. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, Palisades, New York, New York 10964, USA

    • Winnie Chu
    • , Jonathan Kingslake
    •  & Alexandra Boghosian
  3. NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, New York, New York 10021, USA

    • Marco Tedesco
  4. Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA SP), Anguillarese 301, 00123 Roma, Italy

    • Massimo Frezzotti
  5. Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI), Yeonsu-gu, Incheon 21990, Korea

    • Won Sang Lee
  6. Korea University of Science and Technology, Daejeon 34113, Korea

    • Won Sang Lee


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R.E.B assembled the archival material and wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to the manuscript and the overall interpretation. W.C. conducted the catchment analysis and the drainage, and assembled the laser and radar data. J.K. analysed the water area and depths. M.T. determined the water area and depth. I.D. conducted the sensitivity analysis of the water depths and distribution. K.J.T. developed the surface slope products required for the flux calculations. C.J.Z. determined the velocity and volume flow rate of the shear-margin river. M.F. collected the ablation and temperature data. A.B. mapped the water on the ice shelf in front of Petermann Glacier. W.S.L. collected the helicopter video of the river and waterfall that was used for the velocity analysis.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robin E. Bell.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks the anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Supplementary information


  1. 1.

    Development of 2008-2009 Waterfall export from LANDSAT data

    Development of 2008-2009 Waterfall export from LANDSAT data

  2. 2.

    Development of 2013-2014 Waterfall export from LANDSAT data

    Development of 2013-2014 Waterfall export from LANDSAT data.

  3. 3.

    Waterfall video shot from research helicopter on January 12, 2014 by Won Sang of Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI)

    This video was used to develop the estimate of water flux in river.

  4. 4.

    Waterfall video shot from research helicopter on January 12, 2014 by Won Sang of Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI).

    This video was used to develop the estimate of water flux in river.

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