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High geothermal heat flow beneath Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica inferred from aeromagnetic data

Abstract

Geothermal heat flow in the polar regions plays a crucial role in understanding ice-sheet dynamics and predictions of sea level rise. Continental-scale indirect estimates often have a low spatial resolution and yield largest discrepancies in West Antarctica. Here we analyse geophysical data to estimate geothermal heat flow in the Amundsen Sea Sector of West Antarctica. With Curie depth analysis based on a new magnetic anomaly grid compilation, we reveal variations in lithospheric thermal gradients. We show that the rapidly retreating Thwaites and Pope glaciers in particular are underlain by areas of largely elevated geothermal heat flow, which relates to the tectonic and magmatic history of the West Antarctic Rift System in this region. Our results imply that the behavior of this vulnerable sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is strongly coupled to the dynamics of the underlying lithosphere.

Introduction

The Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica (Fig. 1a, b) is the Earth’s prime region to test hypotheses on the interacting relationship and coupling between the solid earth and the cryosphere. In this study, we examine the distribution of geothermal heat flow (GHF) as a key factor to reveal past and present geodynamic, tectonic, and lithospheric processes and their correlation to the presently observed enormous ice mass loss in this region.

Fig. 1: Overview of the study region.
figure1

a Map shows bed elevation51, rift shoulder of the West Antarctic Rift System (WARS), and locations of volcanoes22 with a confidence factor of 4 or higher. Highlighted area indicates study region. EWM Ellsworth-Whitmore Mountains, ASE Amundsen Sea Embayment, MBL Marie Byrd Land. b Catchment areas of Pine Island (PIG), Thwaites (THW), and Pope (PG) glaciers which drain the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) into the Amundsen Sea Embayment. Present day ice flow velocities are amongst the highest in Antarctica52,53. The cumulated ice mass loss of 4760 Gt for the Thwaites (THW) and Pine Island (PIG) catchment region over the last four decades (1979–2017) accounts for 36% of the total Antarctic ice mass loss14.

Geothermal heat flow of the Antarctic continent is one of the essential geophysical parameters for both delineating and identifying tectonic and geodynamic features and processes, and improving the parameterization of basal conditions in ice-flow dynamic models. Apart from a few locations1, thick ice cover and logistical challenges have largely prevented the installation of a dense network of direct temperature gradient measurement sites in drill holes, and will likely do so in the future. Indirect determination of heat flow from other geophysical parameters such as magnetic anomalies2,3, seismological models4,5,6, and interpretation of ice-penetrating radar images7 as well as the estimation of crustal heat production from exposed geological provinces8 have improved with greater coverage of data and accuracy of the models, and increasingly help relate tectonic and magmatic features to ice sheet dynamics.

The Amundsen Sea Embayment is underlain by the eastern branches of the West Antarctic Rift System, which extends from the Ross Sea to the Amundsen Sea and Bellingshausen Sea sectors of West Antarctica9,10,11. Lithospheric and crustal properties, such as thin crust, thin elastic lithospheric thickness, and high uplift rates, as well as interpreted tectonic and magmatic features, such as individual rift basins, fault systems, and young volcanic activity, coincide with the presently observed largest ice mass loss in Antarctica (outside the northern Antarctic Peninsula) by rapid thinning and retreat of the Pine Island, Thwaites, Pope, and other glaciers in the embayment12,13,14. This tectonic setting of the ASE is likely to favor relative high geothermal heat flow. Continent-wide studies of geothermal heat flow derived from magnetic and seismological data consistently indicate a substantially higher geothermal heat flow of West Antarctica compared to that of East Antarctica2,3,4,5. However, these continent-scales models still suffer from large uncertainties and lack the regional detail for the Amundsen Sea and other sectors.

Results and discussion

Curie depth distribution

The Curie depth is considered as a proxy for geothermal heat flow, because it represents the depth-to-bottom of a magnetic source in a first approximation of the temperature dependence of magnetization in crustal rocks (details are in Supplementary Method 1.1 to 1.3). We find that Curie depths (Fig. 2b) range between 10 and 18 km with the 580 °C isotherm dipping down towards Thurston Island. In the central part of the Thwaites and Pope glacier catchment systems, the Curie isotherm exhibits shallow depths of 12–16 km, propagating onto the Amundsen Sea Embayment shelf. Shallower 580 °C isotherms are located in the Byrd Subglacial Basin region and the southwestern part of the Bentley Subglacial Trench. The Pine Island Rift structure does not show prominent Curie depth anomalies, but indicates shallow thermal anomalies in the eastern part. Our estimates for the standard deviation of the Curie depth (Supplementary Fig. 3) is ±1 km for most of the study area and peaks with ±2.7 km in the magnetic basin between Thurston Island and Ellsworth–Whitmore Mountains, and towards Marie Byrd Land, where magnetic data coverage is poor. Further considerations are reported in Supplementary Method 1.3 and Supplementary Discussion 2.1. We note, that the shallow Curie depth distribution correlates well with volcanic centers (e.g., Mount Takahe), which are further indicative for presumed elevated crustal heat flow.

Fig. 2: New magnetic anomaly grid and Curie-depth estimates in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica.
figure2

a Magnetic anomaly grid with areas with of low magnetic data coverage indicated in light gray and areas, where data gaps have been substituted with MF7 satellite magnetic data (https://www.geomag.us/models/MF7.html) shown in dark gray. Small white crosses show locations of the 200 × 200 km window centers for the spectral analysis. b Curie-depth distribution and volcanic centers with a confidence factor of 4 or higher22. BSB Byrd subglacial basin, BST Bentley subglacial trench, FR Ferrigno rift, PIR Pine Island rift.

Geothermal heat flow

Our geothermal heat flow estimates (Fig. 3a), that assume a thermal conductivity of 2.2 W/mK, resemble the Curie depth distribution and range between 50 and 230 mW/m² (Ø = 86 mW/m2), which is in the range of previous estimates for the region3,7,15,16,17. A band of high geothermal heat flow stretches from the south-western flank of the Byrd Subglacial Basin and Bentley Subglacial Trench, underlies most of the Thwaites and Pope glacier catchment and outflow areas and extends onto the inner and middle Amundsen Sea Embayment shelf. This high heat flow band is confined towards the eastern and western side by lower GHF values ranging from 50 to 80 mW/m2. We estimated the model uncertainties (Supplementary Fig. 4) based on the Curie depth standard deviation. By comparing this different GHF model outputs to the best-fit solution (Fig. 3a), the uncertainty distribution is predominantly 20 mW/m2 or less and peaks up to 70 mW/m2 south-east of Mount Takahe volcano. Further considerations are reported in Supplementary Discussion 2.2.

Fig. 3: Geothermal heat flow, lithospheric elastic thickness and magnetic anomaly distribution of the Amundsen Sea sector.
figure3

a Geothermal heat flow distribution with areas of magnetic data gaps and those with MF7 magnetic data coverage (https://www.geomag.us/models/MF7.html) shown in gray. White dashed lines mark location of glaciers: PIG Pine Island glacier, THW Thwaites glacier, PG Pope glacier. b Lithospheric effective elastic thickness29 and the visco-elastic response32. White dashed lines show area of Byrd subglacial basin (BSB) and Bentley subglacial trough (BST). c Compilation of continental-wide6 and local in-situ estimates of geothermal heat flow15,16,34,35. d Tectonic features of the study region. The high geothermal heat flow region (A) is surrounded by the Thurston Island Block (TIB), Ellsworth–Whitmore Mountain (EWM) block and Marie Byrd Land (MBL). The Mount Murphy Rift (MMR)54 correlates with a suite of NNE–SSW trending magnetic lineaments (marked with white lines). The Pine Island rift (PIR) is shown as part of the Thurston Island block.

Geothermal heat flow data from continental rifts, such as the Baikal, Basin and Range, East African, Rhine and Rio Grande rifts, indicate that young rifts are characterized by high heat flow18. Mean values from the rift graben systems within rifts are typically in the range of 70–125 mW/m2. In non-volcanic sections of the East African Rift System, heat flow is normal to low, but this system shows strong volcanic heat transport in its young rift grabens19.

The Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic Rift System is characterized by recent or ongoing magmatic activity, which has been hypothesized for the Pine Island Glacier region20 and the Executive Committee mountain range in Marie Byrd Land21. Further volcanic edifices are found to cluster in the southwestern flank of the BST, and beneath Thwaites glacier22. The absence of relevant seismicity23 indicates that there is no active tectonism of the rift zone. Narrow regions of low seismic velocities in the upper mantle, for instance beneath the BST, may however infer a recent localized phase of extension24.

High geothermal heat flow beneath Thwaites and Pope glaciers

Cumulative evidence, particularly the results from our study, points towards strongly elevated heat flow in the Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic Rift System (Fig. 3a). The Moho is shallow with depths mostly between 17 and 32 km25,26, and its distribution correlates well with our Curie depth estimates. The thinned crust was attributed to Late Cretaceous/Early Cenozoic extensional phases25, and is underlain by an upper mantle with presumably high temperatures in the depth range from 75 to 250 km27. The lithosphere is relatively thin (<100 km), and density variations here predominantly stem from high upper mantle temperatures28. Our shallow Curie depth estimates and inferred high heat flow correlate with areas of low lithospheric effective elastic thickness29 Te (Fig. 3b), indicative of a weak rifted lithosphere. The relatively high Te estimates across the continental shelf are likely an effect of the up to 7 km thick sedimentary sequence of inferred early Cretaceous to Cenozoic age30. The region of high Te propagates east towards Thurston Island Block, which was part of a vast region along the formerly convergent paleo-Pacific margin stretching as a magmatic arc from the eastern Amundsen Sea sector to and along the western Antarctic Peninsula31. Regions of low Te are prone to react more sensitively to changes in crustal loads. The observed glacial isostatic adjustment from ice mass loss in the Amundsen Sea sector exceed the uplift rates predicted from modeled glacial isostatic adjustment by more than 20 mm/year32, suggesting a rapid upper mantle flow response. The highest measured uplift rates were found just west of Thwaites Glacier and near Pope Glacier in regions of low upper mantle viscosity32, which notably coincide with the region of our estimated high geothermal heat flow and low Te (Fig. 3a, b).

Results of previous studies of Antarctic geothermal heat flow (Fig. 3c) vary strongly in their heat flow distribution and resolution for the Amundsen Sea sector. Heat flow based on continent-wide Curie depths3 was derived from the first edition of the Antarctic Digital Magnetic Anomaly Project (ADMAP)33. The regional magnetic anomaly dataset presented in this study was not available for that compilation. Hence, their Curie depths for our study area mostly relied on satellite magnetic data that have lower spatial resolution, and therefore cannot resolve more local geothermal heat flow highs that we infer from aeromagnetic data in the Amundsen Sea sector. Other studies used radar echograms to interpret areas of basal melting for the estimation of geothermal heat flow in the Thwaites Glacier catchment7. Their GHF estimates are comparable to those of the continental scale models3,4. GHF estimates from in-situ temperature gradient measurements lie within the lower end of that range15,16,34,35. Our GHF results presented in this study yield a higher resolution estimate for this highly dynamic part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The elevated geothermal heat flow band (Fig. 3a) is interpreted as caused by an anomalously thin crust25,36, underlain by a hot mantle26,27 and possible tectonic reactivation along older fault systems (e.g., Mount Murphy Rift). The magnetic anomaly grid reveals NNE–SSW trending lineaments located between the Thurston Island and Marie Byrd Land crustal blocks (Fig. 3d). These lineaments are regionally confined and attributed to the magnetic signature of Cenozoic rifting in the eastern branch of the West Antarctic Rift System. Crustal heterogeneity and magmatic intrusions are other likely contributors to the observed heat flow variability, for instance in the vicinity of Byrd Subglacial Basin. High seismic shear-wave velocities (>5 km/s) at 20 km depth may relate to lower crustal mafic intrusions37 that likely relate to subglacial volcanism22. Previous studies suggested that large, deep crustal plutons seated in extended continental crust may have formed rapidly but induced a prolonged perturbation of the deep-crustal geotherm38.

The thermal anomalies, attributed to a thin and laterally heterogeneous rifted crust, magmatism and inferred fault reactivation, are likely to cause a heat-advective effect on the deep hydrological system and, therefore, exert a profound influence on the flow dynamics of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the Amundsen Sea sector. The direct transfer of heat can facilitate basal melting and control the ice rheology and basal sliding, and thus erosion39. High geothermal heat flow beneath Thwaites and Pope glaciers could further contribute to rapid past and future changes in the glacier system. Our results in the Amundsen Sea region provide a new base for discussing the location and extent of crustal-scale thermal anomalies. This is a key finding to better characterize basal sliding properties and subglacial hydrology, as well as refine thermal boundary conditions for studies of ice sheet dynamics in the most rapidly changing sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Methods

Magnetic anomaly dataset

The new magnetic anomaly grid for the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica we compiled represents a further improvement with respect to the latest generation of the publicly available ADMAP 2.0 Antarctic-wide magnetic anomaly grid40. We integrated and processed existing offshore and onshore airborne magnetic anomaly data, unpublished onshore airborne data and data from new survey flights with detailed levelling to better constrain the lithospheric and crustal properties in the region. We expanded the AWI helicopter-magnetic anomaly grid41 with 14 flights (~2880 km total survey line length) on the continental shelf of the eastern Amundsen Sea Embayment during RV Polarstern expedition PS10442 (Supplementary Fig. 1). Furthermore, we added unpublished line data from the Pine Island Rift region and focused on cross-point calculations which exhibited a small offset (>50 nT). This step improved the data across the grounding lines of the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. Weather conditions did not allow for additional flights to link the onshore and offshore regions better. Additionally, a base station correction could not be applied to the helicopter-borne data offshore but was applied to all onshore data. Therefore, the data may still be affected by diurnal variations in the geomagnetic field. All magnetic data were DC shifted to the regional long-wavelength domain of the Magnetic Field Model MF7 (https://www.geomag.us/models/MF7.html) to help homogenize the long-wavelength magnetic field across different surveys43. In areas, where no flight lines are available we also filled data gaps with the MF7 grid (Fig. 2a). A detailed description of the data and processing can be found in Supplementary Method 1.2.

Curie depth estimates

The depth-to-bottom of the magnetic source (Zb) is in first approximation the Curie depth, which is considered as a proxy for geothermal heat flow, because of the temperature dependence of magnetization in crustal rocks. Regions found to have shallow Curie point depths are expected to have higher heat flow, and, therefore, higher average temperature gradients. Curie depth estimates mark a transition zone, rather than an exact boundary, and assume a main magnetic source from magnetite with a Curie temperature of 550–580 °C44,45. This assumption neglects the compositional variability in plutonic rocks that lead to Curie temperature ranges between 300 and 680 °C, and in cases of magnetic assemblages of Fe–Ni–Co–Cu metal alloys up to 620–1084 °C46. Hence, we assume a temperature of 580 °C at the lowest magnetic boundary. We applied the centroid method after Tanaka et al.47 to window sizes of 200 × 200 km and 300 × 300 km (Supplementary Figs. 2 and 3). The windows were extracted equidistantly from the newly compiled magnetic anomaly grid with a spacing of 50 km. We considered the fractal approach (power-law scaling) to calculate the Zb as not applicable. High fractal scaling could underestimate Curie depths due to overcorrection48 and has been discussed previously49,50. From the slope of the power spectrum, the top boundary (Zt) and the centroid of a magnetic layer (Z0) composed of a horizontal (equivalent) layer are estimated (Supplementary Fig. 2). The basal depth of the magnetic source is Zb = 2Z0 − Zt. The obtained bottom depth Zb of the magnetic source is assumed to be the Curie point depth. The Curie depth error, which we calculated using the standard deviation from the spectral analysis, is less than ±2 km for most of the area (Supplementary Fig. 3).

Thermal modeling

A degree of uncertainty surrounds the mineralogical properties in the region. We therefore approximate the steady-state geothermal heat flow in a model of a homogenous material via

$$Q=-k\frac{\partial T}{\partial z},$$
(1)

where Q is the heat flow at the bed surface (in mW/m2), T is the Curie temperature (580 °C), z the Curie depth (in km), and k the thermal conductivity of the lithosphere (in W/mK). The resulting geothermal heat flow thus represents a linear transformation of the Curie depth map.

Data availability

The datasets collected for and generated in this study are available from PANGAEA Data Publisher (www.pangaea.de). The link is https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.932452.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Don Blankenship, Duncan Young, and John Holt of University of Texas—Austin for providing airborne magnetic data they collected as part of the AGASEA project in 2006. The magnetic field model MF7 was obtained from the project webpage (www.geomag.us/models/MF7.html). Many thanks to the master and crew of RV Polarstern Expedition PS104 (2017) for their support. This study was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) in the framework of the Priority Program 1158 “Antarctic research with comparative investigations in Arctic ice areas” by grant GO 724/14-1 to K.G. Additional funds were contributed by the AWI through its research programs PACES-II Workpackage 3.2 and Changing Earth—Sustaining our Future, Subtopic 2.3. The work of F.F. for this paper is a contribution to the 3D Earth (ADMAP 2.0+ CCN) and 4D Antarctica projects of ESA on the Antarctic lithosphere and its influence on subglacial geothermal heat flow, respectively. F.F. acknowledges in particular ESA financial support for several visits to AWI, where joint aeromagnetic anomaly data processing and interpretation was performed. Our study contributes to the Scientific Research Program “Instabilities & Thresholds in Antarctica” (INSTANT) of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR). We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their very constructive and helpful comments, which benefited the manuscript considerably.

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Open Access funding enabled and organized by Projekt DEAL.

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R.D. contributed with conceptualization, writing, original draft preparation, visualization. All authors conducted the data acquisition and analysis. F.F. contributed with the joint aeromagnetic anomaly data processing and interpretation. K.G. was responsible for supervision, project administration, and funding acquisition. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Karsten Gohl.

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Peer review information Communications Earth & Environment thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editors: Joe Aslin, Heike Langenberg.

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Dziadek, R., Ferraccioli, F. & Gohl, K. High geothermal heat flow beneath Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica inferred from aeromagnetic data. Commun Earth Environ 2, 162 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-021-00242-3

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