Airborne geophysical survey of ice caps in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, Arctic Canada

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Steven John Palmer1, Julian A. Dowdeswell2, Poul Christoffersen3, Toby J Benham3, Duncan A Young4, Donald D Blankenship4, Tom Richter4, Gregory Ng4, Cyril Grima4, Feras Habbal4, Martin J Sharp5 and Anja Rutishauser5, (1)University of Exeter, Exeter, EX4, United Kingdom, (2)Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom, (3)Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, United Kingdom, (4)University of Texas at Austin, Institute for Geophysics, Austin, TX, United States, (5)University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Previous studies have shown that between 2003 and 2009, 60 ± 6 Gt of ice was lost each year from the Canadian Arctic (Gardner et al., 2013), making the region the largest cryospheric contributor to global sea level rise outside of the great ice sheets. Glacier ice in the Queen Elizabeth Islands (QEI) currently covers more than 100,000 km2, representing 20% of Earth's ice-covered land area outside of Greenland and Antarctica. The vast majority of this ice is stored within six ice caps located on Ellesmere, Devon and Axel Heiberg islands. Recent satellite observations of the outlet glaciers draining these ice caps have revealed significant velocity variability on inter-annual and multi-year timescales (Van Wychen et al., 2014), though the drivers of these dynamics are not yet understood.

Here we present results obtained in May 2014 during an airborne geophysical survey of the ice caps of Axel Heiberg, Ellesmere and Devon islands, including Agassiz Ice Cap (17,300 km2), Prince of Wales Icefield (19,300 km2) and Devon Ice Cap (14,000 km2). We used a Basler BT-67 aircraft equipped with a suite of geophysical instruments, including a phase-coherent VHF ice-penetrating radar, to measure ice thickness and investigate ice basal conditions along outlet glacier flow lines and in the interior of the ice caps. We reveal that the glaciers draining the ice caps of the QEI exhibit diverse characteristics over short spatial scales, and that fast-flowing tidewater glaciers are located adjacent to previously fast-flowing areas that have subsequently stagnated. Our results show that many ice cap outlet glaciers on Ellesmere and Devon islands are between 700 and 1000 m thick and flow through deep bedrock troughs whose beds lie below sea-level. Some of the outlet glaciers also have floating tongues of ice which extend into the adjacent fjord waters. We intend to use our results to characterize the substrate beneath the ice, and to reveal any variations in conditions at the ice-bed interface. Improved understanding of the processes controlling the flow of these outlet glaciers is required to improve projections of how ice in the QEI will respond to expected temperature increases, particularly in the context of amplified regional warming due to rapidly-declining Arctic sea ice cover.