Skip to main content

Multi-decadal reduction in glacier velocities and mechanisms driving deceleration at polythermal White Glacier, Arctic Canada


Annual and seasonal surface velocities measured continuously from 1960 to 1970 at White Glacier, a 14 km long polythermal valley glacier spanning ~100–1800 m a.s.l., provide the most comprehensive early record of ice dynamics in the Canadian Arctic. Through comparison with differential GPS-derived velocity data spanning 2012–16, we find reductions in mean annual velocity by 31 and 38% at lower elevations (600 and 400 m a.s.l.). These are associated with decreased internal ice deformation due to ice thinning and reduced basal motion likely due to increased hydraulic efficiency in recent years. At higher elevation (~850 m a.s.l.) there is no detectable change in annual velocity and the expected decrease in internal deformation rates due to ice thinning is offset by increased basal motion in both summer and winter, likely attributable to supraglacial melt accessing a still inefficient subglacial drainage system. Decreases in mass flux at lower elevations since the 1960s cannot explain the observed elevation loss of ~20 m, meaning that ice thinning along the glacier trunk is primarily a function of downwasting rather than changing ice dynamics. The current response of the glacier exemplifies steady thinning, velocity slowdown and upstream retreat of the ELA but, because the glacier has an unstable geometry with considerable mass in the 1300–1500 m elevation range, a retreat of the ELA to >1300 plausible within 25–40 years, could trigger runaway wastage.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Multi-decadal reduction in glacier velocities and mechanisms driving deceleration at polythermal White Glacier, Arctic Canada
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Multi-decadal reduction in glacier velocities and mechanisms driving deceleration at polythermal White Glacier, Arctic Canada
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Multi-decadal reduction in glacier velocities and mechanisms driving deceleration at polythermal White Glacier, Arctic Canada
      Available formats
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
Correspondence: Laura I. Thomson <>
Hide All
Bartholomaus, TC, Anderson, RS and Anderson, SP (2008) Response of glacier basal motion to transient water storage. Nature, 1, 3337
Battle, WRB (1951) Glacier movement in North-East Greenland, 1949: with a note on some subglacial observations. J. Glaciol., 1(10), 559563
Bell, RE and 8 others (2014) Deformation, warming and softening of Greenland's ice by refreezing meltwater. Nat. Geosci, 7(7), 497502
Benn, DI and Evans, DJA (2010) Glaciers and glaciation. Hodder Education, London.
Bingham, RG, Nienow, PW and Sharp, MJ (2003) Intra-annual and intra-seasonal flow dynamics of a High Arctic polythermal valley glacier. Ann Glaciol., 37(1), 181188
Bingham, RG, Nienow, PW, Sharp, MJ and Boon, S (2005) Subglacial drainage processes at a High Arctic polythermal valley glacier. J. Glaciol., 51(172), 1524
Bingham, RG, Nienowv, PW, Sharp, MJ and Copland, L (2006) Hydrology and dynamics of a polythermal (mostly cold) High Arctic glacier. Earth Surf. Process. Landforms, 31(12), 14631479
Blatter, H (1987) On the thermal regime of an Arctic valley glacier: a study of White Glacier, Axel Heiberg Island, N.W.T., Canada. J. Glaciol., 33(114), 200211
Cogley, JG, Adams, WP, Ecclestone, MA, Jung-Rothenhäusler, F and Ommanney, CS (1996) Mass balance of White Glacier, Axel Heiberg Island, N.W.T., 1960–1991. J. Glaciol., 42(142), 548563
Cogley, JG, Adams, WP and Ecclestone, MA (2011) Half a century of measurements of glaciers on Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut, Canada. Arctic, 64(3), 371375
Copland, L, Sharp, M and Nienow, PW (2003a) Links between short-term velocity variations and the subglacial hydrology of a predominantly cold polythermal glacier. J. Glaciol., 49(166), 337348
Copland, L, Sharp, MJ, Nienow, P and Bingham, RG (2003b) The distribution of basal motion beneath a High Arctic polythermal glacier. J. Glaciol., 49(166), 407414
Cuffey, KM and Paterson, WSB (2010) The physics of glaciers, 4th edn. Elsevier, Amsterdam
Dowdeswell, JA and 10 others (1997) The mass balance of circum-arctic glaciers and recent climate change. Quater. Res., 48(1), 114
Finsterwalder, R and Pillewizer, W (1939) Photogrammetric studies of glaciers in high Asia. Himalayan J., 2(12)
Flowers, GE (2010) Glacier hydromechanics: early insights and the lasting legacy of three works by Iken and colleagues. J. Glaciol., 56(200), 10691078
Flowers, GE (2015) Modeling water flow under glaciers and ice sheets. Proc. R. Soc. London A: Math. Phys. Eng. Sci. 471(2176)
Gardner, A and 15 others (2013) A reconciled estimate of glacier contributions to sea level rise: 2003–2009. Science, 340, 852857
Glen, JW (1955) The creep of polycrystalline ice. Proc. R. Soc. London A: Math. Phys. Eng. Sci., 228(1175), 519538
Hambrey, MJ and Müller, F (1978) Structural and ice deformation in the White Glaicer, Axel Heiberg Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. J. Glaciol., 20(82), 4166
Hambrey, MJ and 7 others (2005) Structure and changing dynamics of a polythermal valley glacier on a centennial timescale: midre Lovénbreen, Svalbard. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf., 110, F01006
Harig, C and Simons, FJ (2016) Ice mass loss in Greenland, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Canadian Archipelago: seasonal cycles and decadal trends. Geophys. Res. Lett., 43(7), 31503159
Harrison, WD, Cox, LH, Hock, R, March, RS and Pettit, EC (2009) Implications for the dynamic health of a glacier from comparison of conventional and reference-surface balances. Ann. Glaciol., 50(50), 2530
Haumann, D and Honegger, D (1964). White Glacier, Axel Heiberg Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Photogrammetric Research Section, National Research Council of Canada, McGill University, 1:10,000
Heid, T and Kääb, A (2012) Repeat optical satellite images reveal widespread and long term decrease in land-terminating glacier speeds. Cryosphere, 6, 467478
Hubbard, A, Blatter, H, Nienow, P, Mair, D and Hubbard, B (1998) Comparison of a three-dimensional model for glacier flow with field data from Haut Glacier d'Arolla, Switzerland. J. Glaciol., 44(147), 368378
Iken, A (1974) Velocity fluctuations of an arctic valley glacier, A study of the White Glacier, Axel Heiberg Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Axel Heiberg Island Research Reports, Glaciology, No. 5, 123. McGill University, Montreal
Iken, A and Bindschadler, RA (1986) Combined measurements of subglacial water pressure and surface velocity of Findelengletscher, Switzerland: conclusions about drainage system and sliding mechanism. J. Glaciol., 32(110), 101119
Iken, A, Röthlisberger, H, Flotron, A and Haeberli, W (1983) The uplift of Unteraargletcher at the beginning of the melt season – a consequence of water storage at the bed? J. Glaciol., 29(101), 430432
Kamb, B and 7 others (1985) Glacier surge mechanism: 1982–1983 surge of variegated glacier, Alaska. Science, 227(4686), 469479
Kaufmann, V, Kellerer-Pirklbauer, A, Lieb, GK, Slupetzky, H and Avian, M (2015) Glaciological studies at pasterze glacier (Austria) based on aerial photographs. In Li, J and Yang, X, eds. Monitoring and modeling of global changes: a geomatics perspective. Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 173198
Lesins, G, Duck, TJ and Drummond, JR (2010) Climate trends at Eureka in the Canadian high arctic. Atmosphere-Ocean, 48(2), 5980
Maag, HU (1969) Ice-dammed lakes and marginal glacial drainage on Axel Heiberg Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Thesis. Axel Heiberg Island Research Reports. McGill University, Montreal. 147 p
Minchew, B, Simons, M, Hensley, S, Björnsson, H and Pálsson, F (2015) Early melt season velocity fields of Langjökull and Hofsjökull, central Iceland. J. Glaciol., 61(226), 253266
Mingo, L and Flowers, G (2010) Instruments and methods: an integrated lightweight ice-penetrating radar system. J. Glaciol., 56(198), 709714
Mouginot, J and Rignot, E (2015) Ice motion of the Patagonian Icefields of South America: 1984–2014. Geophys. Res. Lett., 42(5), 14411449
Müller, F (1963). Preliminary report 1961–1962. McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Müller, F and Iken, A (1973) Velocity fluctuations and water regime of Arctic valley glaciers. Symposium on the Hydrology of Glaciers, Cambridge, de I'Association Internationale d'Hydrologie Scientifique, 165182
Nolan, M, Motyka, RJ, Echelmeyer, K and Trabant, DC (1995) Ice-thickness measurements of Taku Glacier, Alaska, U.S.A., and their relevance to its recent behavior. J. Glaciol., 41(139), 541553
Nye, JF (1965) The flow of a glacier in a channel of rectangular, elliptic or parabolic cross-section. J. Glaciol., 5(41), 661690
Paul, F, Kääb, A, Maisch, M, Kellenberger, T and Haeberli, W (2004) Rapid disintegration of Alpine glaciers observed with satellite data. Geophys. Res. Lett., 31(L21402) doi: 10.1029/2004GL020816
Rabus, BT and Echelmeyer, KA (1997) The flow of a polythermal glacier: Mccall Glacier, Alaska, U.S.A. J. Glaciol., 43(145), 522536
Rippin, DM, Carrivick, JL and Williams, C (2011) Evidence towards a thermal lag in the response of Karsaglaciären, northern Sweden, to climate change. J. Glaciol., 57(205), 895903
Rippin, DM, Willis, IC, Arnold, NS, Hodson, AJ and Brinkhaus, M (2005) Spatial and temporal variations in surface velocity and basal drag across the tongue of the polythermal glacier midre Lovenbreen, Svalbard. J. Glaciol., 51(175), 588600
Schoof, C (2010) Ice-sheet acceleration driven by melt supply variability. Nature, 468, 803806
Sundal, AV and 5 others (2011) Melt-induced speed-up of Greenland ice sheet offset by efficient subglacial drainage. Nature, 469(4), 521524
Tedstone, AJ and 5 others (2015) Decadal slowdown of a land-terminating sector of the Greenland Ice Sheet despite warming. Nature, 526(7575), 692695
Thomson, LI and Copland, L (2016) White Glacier 2014, Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut: mapped using Structure from Motion methods. J. Maps 12(5), 10631071
Thomson, LI, Osinski, GRL and Ommanney, CS (2011) Glacier change on Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut, Canada. J. Glaciol., 57(206), 10791086
Thomson, LI, Zemp, M, Copland, L, Cogley, JG and Ecclestone, MA (2016) Comparison of geodetic and glaciological mass budgets for white glacier, Axel Heiberg Island, NU. J. Glaciol., 63(237), 5566.
Van Wychen, W and 6 others (2014) Glacier velocities and dynamic ice discharge from the Queen Elizabeth Islands, Nunavut, Canada. Geophys. Res. Lett., 41(2), 484490
Van Wychen, W and 6 others (2016) Characterizing interannual variability of glacier dynamics and dynamic discharge (1999–2015) for the ice masses of Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands, Nunavut, Canada. J. Geophys. Res.: Earth Surf., 121(1), 3963
Vincent, C, Soruco, A, Six, D and Le Meur, E (2009) Glacier thickening and decay analysis from 50 years of glaciological observations performed on Glacier d'Argentière, Mont Blanc area, France. Ann. Glaciol., 50(50), 7379
Waechter, A, Copland, L and Herdes, E (2015) Modern glacier velocities across the Icefield Ranges, St Elias Mountains, and variability at selected glaciers from 1959 to 2012. J. Glaciol., 61(228), 624634
Washburn, B and Goldthwait, RP (1937) Movement of the South Crillon Glacier, Crillon Lake, Alaska. Bull. Am. Geol. Soc., 48(11), 16531664
Weertman, J (1983) Creep deformation of ice. Ann. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci., 11, 215240
Wilson, N (2012) Characterization and Interpretation of Polythermal Structure in Two Subarctic Glaciers. (MSc, Simon Fraser University)
Wilson, N and Flowers, G (2013) Environmental controls on the thermal structure of alpine glaciers. Cryosphere, 7, 167182
Zwally, HJ and 5 others (2002) Surface melt-induced acceleration of Greenland Ice-Sheet flow. Science, 297, 218222
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Glaciology
  • ISSN: 0022-1430
  • EISSN: 1727-5652
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-glaciology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed