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Processes controlling the downstream evolution of ice rheology in glacier shear margins: case study on Rutford Ice Stream, West Antarctica



Ice rheology governs how glaciers flow and respond to environmental change. The rheology of glacier ice evolves in response to a variety of mechanisms, including damage, heating, melting and the development of crystalline fabric. The relative contributions of these rheological mechanisms are not well understood. Using remotely sensed data and physical models, we decouple the influence of each of the aforementioned mechanisms along the margins of Rutford Ice Stream, a laterally confined outlet glacier in West Antarctica. We show that fabric is an important control on ice rheology in the shear margins, with an inferred softening effect consistent with a single-maximum fabric. Fabric evolves to steady state near the onset of streaming flow, and ice progressively softens downstream almost exclusively due to shear heating. The rate of heating is sensitive to local shear strain rates, which respond to local changes in bed topography as ice is squeezed through the basal trough. The impact of shear heating on the downstream evolution of ice rheology in a laterally confined glacier suggests that the thermoviscous feedback – wherein faster ice flow leads to higher rates of shear heating, further softening the ice – is a fundamental control on glacier dynamics.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Corresponding author

Correspondence: Brent Minchew <>


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Present address: Department of Earth Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge MA, USA.

Present address: Geography and Environmental Sciences Northumbria University Newcastle UK.



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