Submarine melting at tidewater glaciers: comparison of numerical modelling, buoyant plume theory and hydrographic data.
Abstract:Observations of the mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet in recent decades have shown significant losses at the coastal margins through the thinning, speed-up and retreat of tidewater glaciers. Ocean forcing, via melting of submerged ice at the calving fronts of tidewater glaciers, has been identified as a possible driver of this behaviour. Such submarine melting may provide a significant direct contribution to the negative mass balance of the glacier and could also amplify calving rates. Quantification of submarine melting remains uncertain however since modelling of fjord circulation and submarine melting is challenging, hydrographic data from pro-glacial fjords are sparse and direct observation of submarine melting at a tidewater glacier has so far proved impossible.
Here, we compare submarine melt rates obtained using buoyant plume theory to those from a numerical model (MITgcm), finding reasonable agreement between the two methods. We then use buoyant plume theory, due to its faster computational speed, to investigate the dependence of melt rate on subglacial discharge, subglacial channel size (and thus emerging flow velocity) and fjord-water temperature. Finally we apply the theory to real tidewater glaciers, finding significant gaps between modelled melt rates and those estimated from hydrographic data. We discuss possible reasons for such disagreements and their implications for constraining the importance of submarine melting to tidewater glacier mass balance.