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Consider an Ice Stream
Forty years ago, John Nye was one of the leaders who introduced the rigors of classical physics to glaciology. His elegant treatments frequently took advantage of the then recent discovery that ice could be approximated as a plastic material. With this viewpoint, Nye was able to explain the shape of ice sheets and glaciers, to predict the expected pattern of stress and velocity within a glacier, and to derive the advance and retreat of a glacier from the record of accumulation and ablation. These advances have given generations of glaciologists tools to interpret the excellent observational record of glacier behavior and variation. In the 1980s, glaciologist, weaned on these works of Nye and of other similarly adept colleagues, carried their lessons to West Antarctica to study ice streams, the vast conveyor belts of ice that discharged nearly as much Antarctic ice as the much larger East Antarctic ice sheet. Ice streams were a glaciological conundrum. Despite the gently sloping surface, these broad features roared along, moving fastest when the gravitational impetus was least. After two decades of research, ice streams still have not given up all their secrets, yet much is now known. Internal deformation is negligible. Basal friction is frequently nil leaving the shattered margins as the primary means to avoid rapid wastage of the ice sheet. Within the margins, the resistive force results from a delicate balance of heat and evolving ice fabrics. Nevertheless, the bed beneath an ice stream cannot be ignored. It is ultimately the state of the underlying marine sediment that determines whether the ice stream can slide at all. There too, the heat balance is critical with an influx of water required to keep the bed wet enough to let the streams glide along. Ice stream research has been the portal through which glaciologists have seen and identified the complexities of West Antarctic ice sheet dynamics. Remarkably, nearly all time scales seem important. Ice stream positions in past millennia conform to radically different flow patterns while on the scale of hours an ice stream’s motion is halted completely, then released to move at surge-like speeds, in tempo with the tides. Explaining these complexities constantly reminds us that the rigorous physics applied to ice so effectively by Nye still work.
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