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Regulation of ice stream flow through subglacial formation of gas hydrates


Variations in the flow of ice streams and outlet glaciers are a primary control on ice sheet stability, yet comprehensive understanding of the key processes operating at the ice–bed interface remains elusive. Basal resistance is critical, especially sticky spots—localized zones of high basal traction—for maintaining force balance in an otherwise well-lubricated/high-slip subglacial environment1. Here we consider the influence of subglacial gas-hydrate formation on ice stream dynamics, and its potential to initiate and maintain sticky spots. Geophysical data document the geologic footprint of a major palaeo-ice-stream that drained the Barents Sea–Fennoscandian ice sheet approximately 20,000 years ago. Our results reveal a 250 km2 sticky spot that coincided with subsurface shallow gas accumulations, seafloor fluid expulsion and a fault complex associated with deep hydrocarbon reservoirs. We propose that gas migrating from these reservoirs formed hydrates under high-pressure, low-temperature subglacial conditions. The gas hydrate desiccated, stiffened and thereby strengthened the subglacial sediments, promoting high traction—a sticky spot—that regulated ice stream flow. Deep hydrocarbon reservoirs are common beneath past and contemporary glaciated areas, implying that gas-hydrate regulation of subglacial dynamics could be a widespread phenomenon.

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Figure 1: Last Glacial Maximum ice extent of the Eurasian ice sheet complex8.
Figure 2: Past ice streaming and glacitectonic deformation in Håkjerringdjupet.
Figure 3: Focused fluid flow and shallow gas accumulations.
Figure 4: Conceptual model of subglacial gas-hydrate formation in Håkjerringdjupet at the Last Glacial Maximum.

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This work was partly supported by the Research Council of Norway through its Centres of Excellence funding scheme, project number 223259; the PetroMaks project ‘Glaciations in the Barents Sea area, GlaciBar’ (grant 200672) and the European Commission FP7-People 2012- Initial Training Networks ‘Glaciated North Atlantic Margins, GLANAM’ (grant 317217). We thank the Norwegian Mapping Authority and the Geological Survey of Norway for providing the high-resolution bathymetry data set through the MAREANO programme, TGS for providing the 3D seismic data set and SINTEF Petroleum Research for providing analogue and digital 2D seismic data.

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K.A. developed the study. M.W. interpreted the geophysical data sets and wrote the paper. A.H. contributed to the writing and editing of the paper, advised on its scope and wrote the code for the ice sheet model. H.P. modelled ice thickness and basal temperature. K.A., A.P.-F. and E.G. helped with the interpretation and analysis. M.W. and H.P. prepared the figures. All authors discussed ideas and commented on the paper.

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Correspondence to Monica Winsborrow.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Winsborrow, M., Andreassen, K., Hubbard, A. et al. Regulation of ice stream flow through subglacial formation of gas hydrates. Nature Geosci 9, 370–374 (2016).

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