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Antarctic firn compaction rates from repeat-track airborne radar data: I. Methods

  • B. Medley (a1), S.R.M. Ligtenberg (a2), I. Joughin (a3), M.R. Van den Broeke (a2), S. Gogineni (a4) and S. Nowicki (a1)...

While measurements of ice-sheet surface elevation change are increasingly used to assess mass change, the processes that control the elevation fluctuations not related to ice-flow dynamics (e.g. firn compaction and accumulation) remain difficult to measure. Here we use radar data from the Thwaites Glacier (West Antarctica) catchment to measure the rate of thickness change between horizons of constant age over different time intervals: 2009–10, 2010–11 and 2009–11. The average compaction rate to ~25 m depth is 0.33 m a−1, with largest compaction rates near the surface. Our measurements indicate that the accumulation rate controls much of the spatio-temporal variations in the compaction rate while the role of temperature is unclear due to a lack of measurements. Based on a semi-empirical, steady-state densification model, we find that surveying older firn horizons minimizes the potential bias resulting from the variable depth of the constant age horizon. Our results suggest that the spatio-temporal variations in the firn compaction rate are an important consideration when converting surface elevation change to ice mass change. Compaction rates varied by up to 0.12 m a−1 over distances <6 km and were on average >20% larger during the 2010–11 interval than during 2009–10.

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Corresponding author
Correspondence: B. Medley <>
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