Lecture Series

Nye Lecture 2006

Dr. Garry Clarke

View Biography »

December 12, 2006, 3:00 pm
Moscone Center West, Room 3006

Water Under Ice: Curiosities, Complexities, and Catastrophes

Watch Online


Meltwater beneath glaciers and ice sheets activates some of the most curious and impressive phenomena known to glaciology. These range from the generation of miniscule electrokinetic currents by water flow through subglacial sediment to massive outburst floods that rearrange landscapes and deliver freshwater pulses to the ocean. The source of this water varies but is some mix of surface water and water melted from the glacier base by geothermal and frictional heating. The outflow of subglacial water is somewhat affected by bed topography but the dominant influence is from gradients in ice overburden pressure and thus from the surface topography of the ice sheet. Upslope water flow is possible and large adverse bed slopes are required before topographic water traps can exist. As a consequence, subglacial topographic basins tend to be leaky and less than 5% of the area of the contemporary Antarctic Ice Sheet provides suitable habitat for subglacial lakes. Following a variety of subglacial pathways, water can migrate toward the ice margins, either as a liquid or as refrozen meltwater accreted to the ice base. The morphology of the subglacial water system is thought to comprise a combination of sheet-like, channel-like, and vein-like elements, all of which lend themselves to mathematical representation. Water transport processes need not operate in a steady fashion and morphological switching between sheet-like and channel-like end members is linked to spectacular events such as glacier surges and outburst floods. Large outbursts of proglacially or subglacially-stored meltwater, the classic Icelandic j{ö}kulhaups, continue to occur in glaciated regions of the world and much larger floods were released during the Late Pleistocene–Early Holocene deglaciation of the Northern Hemisphere. Whether large subglacial lakes like Lake Vostok, Earth’s seventh largest lake, have similar potential for delivering cataclysmic floods remains uncertain. The recent detection of a small flood occurring 4 km below the surface of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet has reignited interest in this important question. Complexity is the hallmark of nonlinear systems and the coupled subglacial interactions of ice, water, and sediment systems are certain to be nonlinear and complex. This complexity may account for the lack of agreement concerning the processes that govern subglacial landform genesis and which, for the most part, remain challenging and mysterious.