When ice meets water: Sub-aqueous melt and its relevance in various settings

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 4:45 PM
Martin Truffer, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States and Roman J Motyka, University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau, AK, United States
The largest glacier changes are primarily observed in settings where ice flows into a proglacial water body. However, the responses to this interaction are not uniform. Rapidly retreating glaciers can occur in close vicinity to advancing ones. Calving styles and glacier morphologies vary greatly as well. Temperate lake-calving glaciers frequently exhibit floating tongues; but this is rarely observed on temperate tidewater glaciers. Calving styles range from mostly sub-aerial calving to full-thickness calving to slow detachment of large ice bergs. 

In addition to the more obvious mechanical calving, glaciers lose mass at their termini through sub-aqueous melting. Melt rates of submerged ice have been shown to vary over several orders of magnitudes, and can range up to several meters per day. This large range is a consequence of different proglacial water temperatures, and of different modes of water transport. Water convection in proglacial water bodies can be driven by winds and tides, but subglacial water discharge is commonly the strongest and most variable driver. Here we attempt to relate the variability of forcings and melt rates to the various morphologies and calving styles of different water-terminating glaciers. The highest melt rates are observed at low-latitude tidewater glaciers, where ocean water can be warm (7 – 10 deg C) and subglacial discharge high. In such settings, sub-aqueous melt can reach the same magnitude as ice flux delivered to the terminus and it can control ice terminus position. Polar tidewater glaciers, such as those in Greenland, often exhibit floating tongues. Although melt rates are likely much lower, they can have a large effect under a floating tongue because of the much larger exposure of ice to water. Changes in melt rates can therefore affect the stability of such floating tongues. Low melt rates occur at some ice shelves at high latitudes, where the temperature and freshwater forcings are small. This situation can also occur at temperate lake-calving glaciers, which often flow into lakes of near freezing temperatures. Due to the very small density differences between subglacial discharge and ambient lake water, convection below the floating tongue is minor or non-existent.. This is in great contrast to fresh water entering a saline environment.