Detailed measurements of surface topography, ice motion, snow accumulation, and ice thickness were made in January 1974 and again in December 1984, along an 8 km stake network extending from the ice sheet, across the grounding line, and on to floating ice shelf in the mouth of slow-moving Ice Stream C, which flows into the eastern side of Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica. During the 11 years between surveys, the grounding line retreated by approximately 300 m. This was caused by net thinning of the ice shelf, which we believe to be a response to the comparatively recent, major decrease in ice discharge from Ice Stream C. Farther inland, snow accumulation is not balanced by ice discharge, and the ice stream is growing progressively thicker.
There is evidence that the adjacent Ice Stream B has slowed significantly over the last decade, and this may be an early indication that this fast-moving ice stream is about to enter a period of stagnation similar to that of Ice Stream C. Indeed, these large ice streams flowing from West Antarctica into Ross Ice Shelf may oscillate between periods of relative stagnation and major activity. During active periods, large areas of ice shelf thicken and run aground on seabed to form extensive “ice plains” in the mouth of the ice stream. Ultimately, these become too large to be pushed seaward by the ice stream, which then slows down and enters a period of stagnation. During this period, the grounding line of the ice plain retreats, as we observe today in the mouth of Ice Stream C, because nearby ice shelf, no longer compressed by ice-stream motion, progressively thins. At the same time, water within the deformable till beneath the ice starts to freeze on to the base of the ice stream, and snow accumulation progressively increases the ice thickness. A new phase of activity would be initiated when the increasing gravity potential of the ice stream exceeds the total resistance of the shrinking ice plain and the thinning layer of deformable till at the bed. This could occur rapidly if the effects of the shrinking ice plain outweigh those of the thinning (and therefore stiffening) till. Otherwise, the till layer would finally become completely frozen, and the ice stream would have to thicken sufficiently to initiate significant heating by internal deformation, followed by basal melting and finally saturation of an adequate thickness of till; this could take some thousands of years.