Is Pine Island Glacier the Weak Underbelly of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet?

Mercer’s ideas led Terry Hughes (1981) (my doctoral advisor at U. of Maine) to propose that the WAIS had a “weak underbelly” in Pine Island Bay. This bay in the Amundsen Sea is where the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) and Thwaites Glacier reach the sea. These are the only two significant outlet glaciers draining the north side of the WAIS. Together they drain 20% of the WAIS. Hughes called this area the “weak underbelly” because these glaciers lack the really huge ice shelves Ross Ice Shelf and the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in which most other large WAIS outlet glaciers terminate. Both glaciers have a relatively rapid flow from the WAIS interior to the calving margin. Further the low surface slopes and smooth flow patterns of PIG suggested to Hughes that there was no indication of a landward rise in the elevation of the glacier bed; such a rise would help stabilize the glacier. Without a rise in the bed, glacier thinning and retreat could result in continual grounding line retreat. The grounding line is where the bottom of the glacier comes in contact with the ground below the ice sheet, in this case the sea bottom. The grounding line is an anchoring point for the outlet glaciers. The length of the glacier that is grounded is both slowed and stabilized by resulting basal friction. Beyond the grounding line toward the margin, the floating ice shelf is susceptible to rapid calving retreat and as the grounding line retreats, so would the calving front. Note in the image below that the situation is even less stable than Hughes speculated. The current grounding line is at a higher elevation than the bed of the glacier for the next 200 km inland of this grounding line. (Note, inland is to the left in the figure, below.) The deeper the basin, the thicker the ice must be to maintain grounding. This makes it tough to slow grounding line retreat once it begins in a deepening basin.


Basal topography profile of Pine Island Glacier (from Shepherd et al., 2001)

The weak underbelly idea was forgotten for some time. While I was attending a conference on rapid glacier flow in Vancouver BC in 1986, data were presented that showed no acceleration of Pine Island Glacier. This was further noted for the entire 1970’s to early 1990’s period by Lucchita and others (1995).

Then, in 1998, Rignot (1998) used satellite imagery to identify that the grounding line of Pine Island Glacier had retreated 5 km from 1992 to 1996. In the same year, Wingham and others (1998) observed a 10 cm per year thinning in the drainage basins for Thwaites and PIG during the 1990’s. Shepherd and others (2001) noted thinning in the fast flow areas of the glacier of 1.6 m/year between 1992 and 1999. This led them to conclude that the observed inland thinning and acceleration of PIG was a response to enhanced glacier bed lubrication. Not from surface melting of course as there is next to none on this glacier. Rignot and others (2002) noted that the glacier had accelerated 18% over a 150 km long section of the glacier in the fast flow area between 1992 and 2000. Change was afoot: after 50 years of apparent stability, the glacier calving front was retreating, and the grounding line was retreating indicating reduced bedrock anchoring. The reduction in basal friction would then lead to faster flow and more thinning. Was this just a short-term increase?

In 2006 and 2007, instruments were placed directly on PIG for the first time by the British Antarctic Survey. Four GPS receivers monitored ice flow from 55 to 171 km inland of the calving front at the center of the glacier (Scott and others, 2009). Glacier velocities had been noted at each site in 1996; by 2007 the respective increase in velocity was 42%, 36%, 34% and 26% respectively, an approximately 2 to 3% annual increase. The increase from 2006 to 2007 was 6.4% at 55 km from the terminus and 4.1% at 171 km inland. The extent of the fast flowing portion of PIG is seen in the figure below. A separate data set, radar based was used by Rignot (2008) to identify a 42% acceleration of PIG between 1996 and 2007 accompanied by most of its ice plain becoming ungrounded.


Velocity map of Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers. Rignot, 2008

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