Evidence from ice shelves for channelized meltwater flow beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet

  • Nature Geoscience volume 6, pages 945948 (2013)
  • doi:10.1038/ngeo1977
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Meltwater generated beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet exerts a strong influence on the speed of ice flow, in particular for major ice streams1,2. The subglacial meltwater also influences ocean circulation beneath ice shelves, initiating meltwater plumes that entrain warmer ocean water and cause high rates of melting3. However, despite its importance, the nature of the hydrological system beneath the grounded ice sheet remains poorly characterized. Here we present evidence, from satellite and airborne remote sensing, for large channels beneath the floating Filchner–Ronne Ice Shelf in West Antarctica, which we propose provide a means for investigating the hydrological system beneath the grounded ice sheet. We observe features on the surface of the ice shelf from satellite imagery and, using radar measurements, show that they correspond with channels beneath the ice shelf. We also show that the sub-ice-shelf channels are aligned with locations where the outflow of subglacial meltwater has been predicted. This agreement indicates that the sub-ice-shelf channels are formed by meltwater plumes, initiated by subglacial water exiting the upstream grounded ice sheet in a focused (channelized) manner. The existence of a channelized hydrological system has implications for the behaviour and dynamics of ice sheets and ice shelves near the grounding lines of ice streams in Antarctica.

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A.M.L.B. was financially supported through NERC fellowship NE/G012733/2, aerogeophysical survey measurements were funded by UK NERC AFI grant NE/G013071/1. J.A.G. was financially supported by the European Space Agency’s Changing Earth Science network. S. Roulliard drew Fig. 3.

Author information


  1. Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4RJ, UK

    • Anne M. Le Brocq
  2. School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, Newcastle Upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK

    • Neil Ross
  3. Bristol Glaciology Centre, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • Jennifer A. Griggs
    • , Antony J. Payne
    •  & Martin J. Siegert
  4. School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9XP, UK

    • Robert G. Bingham
  5. British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge CB3 0ET, UK

    • Hugh F. J. Corr
    • , Fausto Ferraccioli
    • , Adrian Jenkins
    •  & Tom A. Jordan
  6. Environment Department, University of York, York YO10 5DD, UK

    • David M. Rippin


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A.M.L.B. wrote the paper, J.A.G. processed the ICESat data, and N.R. and H.F.J.C. processed the radar data. A.J.P. and A.J. provided expertise on the nature of meltwater plumes and their interaction with the ice shelf. M.J.S., F.F., N.R., R.G.B., H.F.J.C., T.A.J., A.M.L.B. and D.M.R. were involved in the aerogeophysical survey. All authors commented on a draft of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anne M. Le Brocq.

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