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The role of subglacial water in ice-sheet mass balance


In the coming decades, significant changes in the polar regions will increase the contribution of ice sheets to global sea-level rise. Under the ice streams and outlet glaciers that deliver ice to the oceans, water and deformable wet sediments lubricate the base, facilitating fast ice flow. The influence of subglacial water on fast ice flow depends on the geometry and capacity of the subglacial hydrologic system: water moving rapidly through a well-connected system of conduits or channels will have little impact on ice-sheet velocities, but water injected into a spatially dispersed subglacial system may reduce the effective pressure at the base of the ice sheet, and thereby trigger increased ice-sheet velocities. In Greenland, the form of the subglacial hydrologic system encountered by increasing surface melt water will determine the influence of changing atmospheric conditions on ice-sheet mass balance. In Antarctica, subglacial lakes have the capacity to both modulate velocities in ice streams and outlet glaciers and provide nucleation points for new fast ice-flow tributaries. Climate models of ice-sheet responses to global change remain incomplete without a parameterization of subglacial hydrodynamics and ice dynamics.

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Figure 1: Recent estimates of ice sheet mass balance based on surface elevation, changing gravity fields and changing estimates for Greenland and Antarctica.
Figure 2: Distribution of water for the polar ice sheets.


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The author acknowledges assistance with the manuscript from Frank Nitsche, Rachel Young and Yael Degany. Helen Fricker, Gwenn Flowers and Meredith Kelly provided helpful suggestions for the manuscript. The author received support from the US National Science Foundation for this work. LDEO contribution number: 7148.

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Bell, R. The role of subglacial water in ice-sheet mass balance. Nature Geosci 1, 297–304 (2008).

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