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Department or Administrative Unit

Geological Sciences

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Understanding the processes that affect streaming ice flow and the mass balance of glaciers and ice sheets requires sound knowledge of their subglacial environments. Previous studies have shown that an extensive deformable subglacial sediment layer favors fast ice-stream flow. However, areas of high basal drag, termed sticky spots, are of particular interest because they inhibit the fast flow of the overriding ice. The stick-slip behavior of Whillans Ice Stream (WIS) is perhaps the most conspicuous manifestation of a subglacial sticky spot. We present new ice-thickness and seismic-reflection measurements collected over the main sticky spot in the ice plain of WIS, allowing us to elucidate its role in the behavior of the ice stream. Ice-thickness and surface-elevation data show that the sticky spot occupies a subglacial topographic high. Water flow in response to the hydrological potential gradient will be routed around the sticky spot if effective pressures are similar on the sticky spot and elsewhere. The seismic experiment imaged a laterally continuous basal layer approximately 6 m thick, having compressional wave velocities of greater than 1800 m s−1 and density greater than 1800 kg m−3, indicative of a till layer that is stiffer than corresponding till beneath well-lubricated parts of the ice stream. This layer likely continues to deform under the higher shear stress of the sticky spot, and some water may be pumped up onto the sticky spot during motion events.


This article was originally published Open Access in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.


Earth and Planetary Science Letters


© 2016 The Authors.