Short-term variability in Greenland Ice Sheet motion forced by time-varying meltwater drainage: implications for the relationship between subglacial drainage system behavior and ice velocity

Ian Bartholomew, Peter Nienow, Andrew Sole, Douglas Mair, Thomas Cowton, Matt A. King

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Citations (Scopus)


High resolution measurements of ice motion along a similar to 120 km transect in a land-terminating section of the GrIS reveal short-term velocity variations (<1 day), which are forced by rapid variations in meltwater input to the subglacial drainage system from the ice sheet surface. The seasonal changes in ice velocity at low elevations (<1000 m) are dominated by events lasting from 1 day to 1 week, although daily cycles are largely absent at higher elevations, reflecting different patterns of meltwater input. Using a simple model of subglacial conduit behavior we show that the seasonal record of ice velocity can be understood in terms of a time-varying water input to a channelized subglacial drainage system. Our investigation substantiates arguments that variability in the duration and rate, rather than absolute volume, of meltwater delivery to the subglacial drainage system are important controls on seasonal patterns of subglacial water pressure, and therefore ice velocity. We suggest that interpretations of hydro-dynamic behavior in land-terminating sections of the GrIS margin which rely on steady state drainage theories are unsuitable for making predictions about the effect of increased summer ablation on future rates of ice motion.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberF03002
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue numberF3
Early online date7 Jul 2012
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2012


  • Greenland
  • ice dynamics
  • subglacial hydrology

Cite this