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The Subglacial Antarctic Lakes Scientific Access (SALSA) Project accessed Mercer Subglacial Lake using environmentally clean hot-water drilling to examine interactions among ice, water, sediment, rock, microbes and carbon reservoirs within the lake water column and underlying sediments. A ~0.4 m diameter borehole was melted through 1087 m of ice and maintained over ~10 days, allowing observation of ice properties and collection of water and sediment with various tools. Over this period, SALSA collected: 60 L of lake water and 10 L of deep borehole water; microbes >0.2 μm in diameter from in situ filtration of ~100 L of lake water; 10 multicores 0.32–0.49 m long; 1.0 and 1.76 m long gravity cores; three conductivity–temperature–depth profiles of borehole and lake water; five discrete depth current meter measurements in the lake and images of ice, the lake water–ice interface and lake sediments. Temperature and conductivity data showed the hydrodynamic character of water mixing between the borehole and lake after entry. Models simulating melting of the ~6 m thick basal accreted ice layer imply that debris fall-out through the ~15 m water column to the lake sediments from borehole melting had little effect on the stratigraphy of surficial sediment cores.
Here we use polarimetric measurements from an Autonomous phase-sensitive Radio-Echo Sounder (ApRES) to investigate ice fabric within Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica. The survey traverse is bounded at one end by the suture zone with the Mercer Ice Stream and at the other end by a basal ‘sticky spot’. Our data analysis employs a phase-based polarimetric coherence method to estimate horizontal ice fabric properties: the fabric orientation and the magnitude of the horizontal fabric asymmetry. We infer an azimuthal rotation in the prevailing horizontal c-axis between the near-surface (z ≈ 10–50 m) and deeper ice (z ≈ 170–360 m), with the near-surface orientated closer to perpendicular to flow and deeper ice closer to parallel. In the near-surface, the fabric asymmetry increases toward the center of Whillans Ice Stream which is consistent with the surface compression direction. By contrast, the fabric orientation in deeper ice is not aligned with the surface compression direction but is consistent with englacial ice reacting to longitudinal compression associated with basal resistance from the nearby sticky spot.
Fast ice flow on the Antarctic continent constitutes much of the mass loss from the ice sheet. However, geophysical methods struggle to constrain ice flow history at depth, or separate the signatures of topography, ice dynamics and basal conditions on layer structure. We develop and demonstrate a methodology to compare layer signatures in multiple airborne radar transects in order to characterize ice flow at depth, or improve coverage of existing radar surveys. We apply this technique to generate synthetic, along-flow radargrams and compare different deformation regimes to observed radargram structure. Specifically, we investigate flow around the central sticky spot of Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica. Our study suggests that present-day velocity flowlines are insufficient to characterize flow at depth as expressed in layer geometry, and streaklines provide a better characterization of flow around a basal sticky spot. For Whillans Ice Stream, this suggests that ice flow wraps around the central sticky spot, supported by idealized flow simulations. While tracking isochrone translation and rotation across survey lines is complex, we demonstrate that our approach to combine radargram interpretation and modeling can reveal critical details of past ice flow.
The ability to detect the surface expression of moving water beneath the Antarctic ice sheet by satellite has revealed a dynamic basal environment, with implications for regional ice dynamics, grounding-line stability, and fluxes of freshwater and nutrients to the Southern Ocean. Knowledge of subglacial activity on timescales important for near-term prediction of ice-sheet fluctuations (decadal to century) is limited by the short observational record of NASA's Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) laser altimetry mission used to generate the last continent-wide survey (2003–08). Here, we use synthetic aperture radar-interferometric-mode data from ESA's CryoSat-2 radar altimetry mission (2010–present), which samples 45 of the ICESat-derived subglacial lakes, to extend their time series to the end of 2016. The extended time series show that there have been surface-height changes at 20 of the 45 lakes since 2008, indicating that some of these features are persistent and potentially cyclic, while other features show negligible changes, suggesting these may be transient or nonhydrological features. Continued monitoring of active lakes for both height and velocity changes, as well as developing methods for identifying additional lakes, is critical to quantifying the full distribution of active subglacial lakes in Antarctica.
Flow-frictional resistance at the base of glaciers and ice sheets is strongly linked to subglacial water pressure. Understanding the physical mechanisms that govern meltwater fluxes in subglacial channels is hence critical for constraining variations in ice flow. Previous mathematical descriptions of soft-bed subglacial channels assume a viscous till rheology, which is inconsistent with laboratory data and the majority of field studies. Here, we use a grain-scale numerical formulation coupled to pore-water dynamics to analyze the structural stability of channels carved into soft beds. Contrary to the soft-bed channel models assuming viscous till rheology, we show that the flanks of till channels can support substantial ice loads without creep closure of the channel, because the sediment has finite frictional strength. Increased normal stress on the channel flanks causes plastic failure of the sediment, and the channel rapidly shrinks to increase the ice-bed contact area. We derive a new parameterization for subglacial channelized flow on soft beds and show that channel dynamics are dominated by fluvial erosion and deposition processes with thresholds linked to the plastic rheology of subglacial tills. We infer that the described limits to channel size may cause subglacial drainage to arrange in networks of multiple closely spaced channels.
Subglacial hydrologic systems in Antarctica and Greenland play a fundamental role in ice-sheet dynamics, yet critical aspects of these systems remain poorly understood due to a lack of observations. Ground-based electromagnetic (EM) geophysical methods are established for mapping groundwater in many environments, but have never been applied to imaging lakes beneath ice sheets. Here, we study the feasibility of passive- and active-source EM imaging for quantifying the nature of subglacial water systems beneath ice streams, with an emphasis on the interfaces between ice and basal meltwater, as well as deeper groundwater in the underlying sediments. We describe a suite of model studies that exam the data sensitivity as a function of ice thickness, water conductivity and hydrologic system geometry for models representative of a subglacial lake and a grounding zone estuary. We show that EM data are directly sensitive to groundwater and can image its lateral and depth extent. By combining the conductivity obtained from EM data with ice thickness and geological structure from conventional geophysical techniques, such as ground-penetrating radar and active seismic surveying, EM data have the potential to provide new insights on the interaction between ice, rock and water at critical ice-sheet boundaries.
A clean hot-water drill was used to gain access to Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW) in late January 2013 as part of the Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project. Over 3 days, we deployed an array of scientific tools through the SLW borehole: a downhole camera, a conductivity–temperature–depth (CTD) probe, a Niskin water sampler, an in situ filtration unit, three different sediment corers, a geothermal probe and a geophysical sensor string. Our observations confirm the existence of a subglacial water reservoir whose presence was previously inferred from satellite altimetry and surface geophysics. Subglacial water is about two orders of magnitude less saline than sea water (0.37–0.41 psu vs 35 psu) and two orders of magnitude more saline than pure drill meltwater (<0.002 psu). It reaches a minimum temperature of –0.55~C, consistent with depression of the freezing point by 7.019 MPa of water pressure. Subglacial water was turbid and remained turbid following filtration through 0.45 µm filters. The recovered sediment cores, which sampled down to 0.8 m below the lake bottom, contained a macroscopically structureless diamicton with shear strength between 2 and 6 kPa. Our main operational recommendation for future subglacial access through water-filled boreholes is to supply enough heat to the top of the borehole to keep it from freezing.
The Whillans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling (WISSARD) project will test the overarching hypothesis that an active hydrological system exists beneath a West Antarctic ice stream that exerts a major control on ice dynamics, and the metabolic and phylogenetic diversity of the microbial community in subglacial water and sediment. WISSARD will explore Subglacial Lake Whillans (SLW, unofficial name) and its outflow toward the grounding line where it is thought to enter the Ross Ice Shelf seawater cavity. Introducing microbial contamination to the subglacial environment during drilling operations could compromise environmental stewardship and the science objectives of the project, consequently we developed a set of tools and procedures to directly address these issues. WISSARD hot water drilling efforts will include a custom water treatment system designed to remove micron and sub-micron sized particles (biotic and abiotic), irradiate the drilling water with germicidal ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and pasteurize the water to reduce the viability of persisting microbial contamination. Our clean access protocols also include methods to reduce microbial contamination on the surfaces of cables/hoses and down-borehole equipment using germicidal UV exposure and chemical disinfection. This paper presents experimental data showing that our protocols will meet expectations established by international agreement between participating Antarctic nations.
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