Reverse glacier motion during iceberg calving and the cause of glacial earthquakes

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  17 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6245, pp. 305-308
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab0460

Movers and shakers

When the edge of an ice sheet breaks off and falls into the sea (calves), the remaining section of the ice sheet moves backward and down and can suffer a glacial earthquake. Murray et al. studied calving from Greenland's Helheim Glacier. The forces that cause the change in the motion of the ice sheet at its terminus also trigger the accompanying earthquakes. Because these seismic signals can be detected by instruments located all over the globe, it should be possible to use these glacial earthquakes as proxies for glacier calving.

Science, this issue p. 305


Nearly half of Greenland’s mass loss occurs through iceberg calving, but the physical mechanisms operating during calving are poorly known and in situ observations are sparse. We show that calving at Greenland’s Helheim Glacier causes a minutes-long reversal of the glacier’s horizontal flow and a downward deflection of its terminus. The reverse motion results from the horizontal force caused by iceberg capsize and acceleration away from the glacier front. The downward motion results from a hydrodynamic pressure drop behind the capsizing berg, which also causes an upward force on the solid Earth. These forces are the source of glacial earthquakes, globally detectable seismic events whose proper interpretation will allow remote sensing of calving processes occurring at increasing numbers of outlet glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica.

View Full Text

Stay Connected to Science