Cambridge: A new study, led by MIT researchers, has shown that the rate of glacier ice flow is more sensitive to stress than previously calculated.
The study was published in the journal, ‘Nature Communications Earth and Environment’.
In this case, stress refers to the forces acting on Antarctic glaciers, which are primarily influenced by gravity that drags the ice down toward lower elevations. Viscous glacier ice flows ‘really similarly to honey,’ explained Joanna Millstein, a PhD student in the Glacier Dynamics and Remote Sensing Group and lead author of the study.
“If you squeeze honey in the centre of a piece of toast, and it piles up there before oozing outward, that’s the exact same motion that’s happening for ice,” she added.
The revision to the equation proposed by Millstein and her colleagues should improve models for making predictions about the ice flow of glaciers. This could help glaciologists predict how Antarctic ice flow might contribute to future sea-level rise, although Millstein said the equation change is unlikely to raise estimates of sea-level rise beyond the maximum levels already predicted under climate change models.
“Almost all our uncertainties about sea-level rise coming from Antarctica have to do with the physics of ice flow, though, so this will hopefully be a constraint on that uncertainty,” she said.
The equation in question, called Glen’s Flow Law, is the most widely used equation to describe viscous ice flow. It was developed in 1958 by British scientist J.W. Glen, one of the few glaciologists working on the physics of ice flow in the 1950s, according to Millstein.
With relatively few scientists working in the field until recently, along with the remoteness and inaccessibility of most large glacier ice sheets, there were few attempts to calibrate Glen’s Flow Law outside the lab until recently. In the recent study, Millstein and her colleagues took advantage of a new wealth of satellite imagery over Antarctic ice shelves, the floating extensions of the continent’s ice sheet, to revise the stress exponent of the flow law.
“In 2002, this major ice shelf [Larsen B] collapsed in Antarctica, and all we have from that collapse is two satellite images that are a month apart,” she said.
“Now, over that same area we can get [imagery] every six days,” she added.
The new analysis showed that “the ice flow in the most dynamic, fastest-changing regions of Antarctica — the ice shelves, which basically hold back and hug the interior of the continental ice — is more sensitive to stress than commonly assumed,” Millstein said.
She’s optimistic that the growing record of satellite data will help capture rapid changes in Antarctica in the future, providing insights into the underlying physical processes of glaciers.
But stress isn’t the only thing that affects ice flow, the researchers noted. Other parts of the flow law equation represent differences in temperature, ice grain size and orientation, and impurities and water contained in the ice — all of which can alter flow velocity. Factors like temperature could be especially important in understanding how ice flow impacts sea-level rise in the future, Millstein said.
Millstein and colleagues are also studying the mechanics of ice sheet collapse, which involves different physical models than those used to understand the ice flow problem. “The cracking and breaking of ice are what we’re working on now, using strain rate observations,” Millstein said.
The researchers used InSAR, radar images of the Earth’s surface collected by satellites, to observe deformations of the ice sheets that can be used to make precise measurements of strain. By observing areas of ice with high strain rates, they hope to better understand the rate at which crevasses and rifts propagate to trigger collapse.