Anatomy of a meltwater drainage system beneath the ancestral East Antarctic ice sheet


Subglacial hydrology is critical to understand the behaviour of ice sheets, yet active meltwater drainage beneath contemporary ice sheets is rarely accessible to direct observation. Using geophysical and sedimentological data from the deglaciated western Ross Sea, we identify a palaeo-subglacial hydrological system active beneath an area formerly covered by the East Antarctic ice sheet. A long channel network repeatedly delivered meltwater to an ice stream grounding line and was a persistent pathway for episodic meltwater drainage events. Embayments within grounding-line landforms coincide with the location of subglacial channels, marking reduced sedimentation and restricted landform growth. Consequently, channelized drainage at the grounding line influenced the degree to which these landforms could provide stability feedbacks to the ice stream. The channel network was connected to upstream subglacial lakes in an area of geologically recent rifting and volcanism, where elevated heat flux would have produced sufficient basal melting to fill the lakes over decades to several centuries; this timescale is consistent with our estimates of the frequency of drainage events at the retreating grounding line. Based on these data, we hypothesize that ice stream dynamics in this region were sensitive to the underlying hydrological system.

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Figure 1: Western Ross Sea bathymetry and landforms.
Figure 2: Downstream hydrological segment.
Figure 3: Middle hydrological segment.
Figure 4: Subglacial lakes in upstream segment.
Figure 5: Conditions required to fill subglacial lakes.


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The authors thank J. Walder, S. Carter, C. Clark and T. Swanson for productive discussions; B. Demet for assistance in data collection; and A. Fonseca, S. Rezvanbehbahani and J. Aroom for assisting with analyses. This project was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF-PLR 1246353, J.B.A.) and the Swedish Research Council (D0567301, S.L.G.).

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L.M.S. and J.B.A. conceived the research. L.M.S., J.B.A., S.L.G., L.O.P. and A.R.W.H. interpreted the geophysical data. L.M.S. and A.R.W.H. calculated channel flow properties. L.A.S. calculated hydraulic pressure. L.M.S. and L.O.P. analysed sediment samples. D.P. and R.M.D. provided ice sheet model data. H.M.G. completed the heat flow model. L.M.S. wrote the manuscript, with major contributions from J.B.A., S.L.G. and H.M.G. All authors read and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Lauren M. Simkins.

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Simkins, L., Anderson, J., Greenwood, S. et al. Anatomy of a meltwater drainage system beneath the ancestral East Antarctic ice sheet. Nature Geosci 10, 691–697 (2017).

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