Biological and Environmental Research - Earth and Environmental System Sciences
Earth and Environmental System Modeling
05 March 2014

Feedbacks Between Subglacial Drainage and Glacier Dynamics


In most glaciers and ice sheet outlets the majority of motion is due to basal slip, a combination of basal sliding and bed deformation. The importance of basal water in controlling sliding is well established, with increased sliding generally related to high basal water pressure, but the details of the interactions between the ice and water systems has not received much study when there is coupling between the systems.

Here we use coupled subglacial hydrology and ice dynamics models within the Community Ice Sheet Model to investigate feedbacks between the ice and water systems. The dominant feedback we find is negative: sliding over bedrock bumps opens additional cavity space, which lowers water pressure and, in turn, sliding. We also find two small positive feedbacks: basal melt increases through frictional heat during sliding, which raises water pressure, and strain softening of basal ice during localized speedup causes cavities to close more quickly and maintain higher water pressures.

Notably, evolution of the distributed hydrologic system, particularly when the sliding-opening feedback is included, can qualitatively act (and thus observationally “look”) like channelization; a reduction in water pressure and associated sliding occurs with steady meltwater inputs.  We find that the negative feedback resulting from sliding-opening is robust across a wide range of parameter values. However, our modeling also argues that subglacial channelization is required to terminate speedup events over timescales that are commensurate with observations of late summer slowdown on mountain glaciers.  Our results argue that a coupled treatment of subglacial hydrology and ice dynamics is required to fully represent evolution of a subglacial hydrologic system composed of distributed drainage only, conditions expected to apply to the ablation zone of the Greenland ice sheet.


Matthew Hoffman
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)
Hoffman, M.  2014.  "Feedbacks Between Coupled Subglacial Hydrology and Glacier Dynamics."  Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface 23.

This work was supported by Climate Modeling Programs within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Sci- ence and by the National Science Foundation, under grant ANT-0424589 to the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS). We thank Mauro Werder, Ian Hewitt, Tim Creyts, Christian Schoof, Gwenn Flowers, and Jesse Johnson for enlightening dis- cussions on subglacial hydrology and model formulation. Conversations with Douglas Jacobsen and Jeremy Fyke aided model development and anal- ysis. Reviews by Martin Truffer and two anonymous reviewers contributed very valuable feedback that improved the manuscript. Finally, we thank Asso- ciate Editor Erin Pettit and Editor Bryn Hubbard for their editorial guidance.