Related Research Areas
Climate Variability & Change

Flow speeds of large outlet glaciers and ice streams play an important role in modulating ice sheet mass balance and sea level. Negative mass imbalances in large parts of Greenland and Antarctica are being driven by the recent accelerations of outlet glaciers, responding to unknown or poorly constrained perturbations in their boundary conditions. Recent speedup events have been attributed to the loss of frontal resistance and changes in subglacial hydrologic conditions. Identifying the cause of outlet glacier accelerations is key to improving prognostic models of ice sheet evolution and sea level rise. While the perturbations described above have a link to climate, other non-climatic forcing mechanisms are known to be important. Internal ice sheet mechanisms, such as the periodic filling/draining of subglacial lakes, also play an important role in modulating outlet glacier speeds and hence sea level. Theoretical models suggest that subglacial lakes have a distinct flood periodicity, and that flood pathways are sensitive to very small (5-15 m) changes in surface elevation. Consequently, the drainage of large and currently stable lakes would cause a significant and sustained velocity change and alter the mass balance of large portions of Antarctica. Here, we propose to investigate the interaction between subglacial lakes and ice dynamics, to better understand the evolution of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Roughly 33 major outlet glaciers and ice streams drain a significant fraction of Antarctica's ice to the ocean or a floating ice shelf. These glaciers vary greatly in their characteristics, including thickness, surface temperature, flow speed, surface slope and basal geology (geothermal heat flux, crystalline rock or deformable till), all of which are important boundary conditions for constraining numerical models of glacier response to perturbations. Quantifying the response to, and recovery from, discrete flood events will yield crucial information about basal properties and the role of water in outlet glacier behavior. The proposed work seeks to investigate this aspect of ice sheet dynamics. Education and Public Outreach: This project will support the development of a new website that describes the "anatomy of a glacier," including glacier processes and features, how scientists study them, and why they are important to understand. Through public outreach and education talks, it is clear that the general public has minimal understanding of glacier terminology and the relevance of certain key indicators of change. We will develop a website that clearly illustrates different components of a glacier, and provides the viewer with an improved awareness of how polar science is conducted. The website will include a variety of glacier "activities" and lesson plans that will be developed by an education coordinator at KU's Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS). The Education Coordinator, who is part of a larger Education Team at CReSIS, will leverage CReSIS resources by testing activities at middle- and high schools that are regularly visited as part of the CReSIS program; taking advantage of the exposure and popularity of the CReSIS Education website; working with local K-12 teachers to determine the appropriate scope of activities and website content.

Project PI: Leigh Stearns/University of Kansas

University of Kansas Assistant Professor, Department of Geology 1475 Jayhawk Blvd., Lawrence, KS 66045 USA

Phone: (785) 864-4202

Fax: (785) 864-5276

Email: stearns @


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Started: Sep 29, 2010

Last Activity: Jan 05, 2011


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