Re: [asa] Subglacial Water System Moving Faster Than Previously Thought

From: Rich Blinne <>
Date: Fri Feb 16 2007 - 09:14:57 EST

This is recently discovered. The disturbing part is not the existence
of this system, but the rapidity of the change and unexpected nature
of the change over a period of months. The water acts as a lubricant
and can thus act to accelerate deglaciation. Also, this change can
both rapidly start and stop, see

> Glaciologist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University in
> State College agrees. "Lots of people were saying we [IPCC authors]
> should extrapolate into the future," he says, but "we dug our heels
> in at the IPCC and said we don't know enough to give an answer."
> Researchers will have to understand how and why glacier speeds can
> vary so much, he adds, before they can trust their models to
> forecast the fate of the ice sheets, much less sea level.

The bottom line is the models for glaciers are not at all good and
have for the most part underestimated the ice melt. This was why this
effect got completely pulled from AR4. We simply don't know but it
doesn't mean we have nothing to fear. Since this is so chaotic we may
not know until it is too late. What we do know suggests that a rapid
and catastrophic failure of the arctic (and now antarctic) glaciers
is very, very possible. We just don't know enough to effectively
predict it. Think of it this way. The failure mechanism for the New
Orleans levees was not effectively predicted, yet they did in fact
fail catastrophically. Glaciers may in an unpredicted fashion
deglaciate rapidly in an analogous way as a levee failure where the
structural integrity of the bottom is compromised. Thus, the uh oh.

On Feb 16, 2007, at 6:27 AM, David Opderbeck wrote:

> Rich, was this subglacial water system recently formed, or has it
> been around for a long time and only been recently discovered? It
> seems that if this is a recent phenomenon, it would perhaps be an
> "uh oh." If it has been around for a long time and has only been
> recently discovered, however, couldn't that suggest that some fears
> about deglaciation are overstated -- that glaciers are always very
> dynamic systems that aren't likely to collapse catastrophically due
> to some kind of meltwater feedback loop? I'm thinking of the
> scenes in An Inconvenient Truth concerning water on top of the
> glaciers in Antarctica (if I'm remembering this right).
> On 2/15/07, Rich Blinne <> wrote:
> From today's Science Express:
> An Active Subglacial Water System in West Antarctica Mapped from Space
> Helen Amanda Fricker 1*, Ted Scambos 2, Robert Bindschadler 3,
> Laurie Padman 4
> 1 Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California,
> San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA.
> 2 National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado,
> Boulder, CO 80302, USA.
> 3 NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD 20771, USA.
> 4 Earth & Space Research, Corvallis, OR 97333, USA.
> * To whom correspondence should be addressed.
> Helen Amanda Fricker , E-mail:
> Satellite laser altimeter elevation profiles from 2003-2006
> collected over the lower parts of Whillans and Mercer ice streams,
> West Antarctica, reveal 14 regions of temporally varying elevation
> which we interpret as the surface expression of subglacial water
> movement. Vertical motion and spatial extent of 2 of the largest
> regions are confirmed by satellite image differencing. A major,
> previously unknown subglacial lake near the grounding line of
> Whillans Ice Stream is observed to drain 2.0 km3 of water over ~3
> years, while elsewhere a similar volume of water is being stored
> subglacially. These observations reveal a widespread, dynamic
> subglacial water system which may exert an important control on ice
> flow and mass balance.
> Fast flowing subglacial ice streams are important indicators of
> climate change and will be helpful in improving our predictions of
> sea level rise. The author of this paper was quoted by New
> Scientist as following:
> We didn't realise that the water under these ice streams was moving
> in such large quantities and on such short time scales. We thought
> these changes took place over years and decades, but we are seeing
> large changes over months," says Helen Fricker at the University of
> California San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the
> US, who led the study.
> Uh, oh. Most of the worry was concerning Greenland and it has been
> generally assumed that Antarctica would as it has in past
> deglaciations lag the Northern Hemisphere. This appears to
> challenge that assumption.
> --
> David W. Opderbeck
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Received on Fri Feb 16 09:14:12 2007

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