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Ice-shelf fracture due to viscoelastic flexure stress induced by fill/drain cycles of supraglacial lakes

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 July 2015

Alison F. Banwell*
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 1ER, UK
Douglas R. Macayeal
Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA


Using a previously derived treatment of viscoelastic flexure of floating ice shelves, we simulated multiple years of evolution of a single, axisymmetric supraglacial lake when it is subjected to annual fill/drain cycles. Our viscoelastic treatment follows the assumptions of the well-known thin-beam and thin-plate analysis but, crucially, also covers power-law creep rheology. As the ice-shelf surface does not completely return to its un-flexed position after a 1-year fill/drain cycle, the lake basin deepens with each successive cycle. This deepening process is significantly amplified when lake-bottom ablation is taken into account. We evaluate the timescale over which a typical lake reaches a sufficient depth such that ice-shelf fracture can occur well beyond the lake itself in response to lake filling/drainage. We show that, although this is unlikely during one fill/drain cycle, fracture is possible after multiple years assuming surface meltwater availability is unlimited. This extended zone of potential fracture implies that flexural stresses in response to a single lake filling/drainage event can cause neighbouring lakes to drain, which, in turn, can cause lakes farther afield to drain. Such self-stimulating behaviour may have accounted for the sudden, widespread appearance of a fracture system that drove the Larsen B Ice Shelf to break-up in 2002.

Physical Sciences
© Antarctic Science Ltd 2015 

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