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Direct observations of submarine melt and subsurface geometry at a tidewater glacier

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Science  26 Jul 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6451, pp. 369-374
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax3528

Underwater melting

How fast does warm ocean water melt glaciers that terminate in the sea? That question is central to understanding how fast ice sheets may lose mass, and thus how fast sea level will rise, in response to global warming, but there are few data about the process. Sutherland et al. used repeat multibeam sonar surveys to observe an Alaskan subsurface tidewater glacier face to create a time series of its melting and calving patterns. They observed melt rates up to a hundred times larger than those predicted by theory, observations that compel us to reevaluate predictions of such ice loss.

Science, this issue p. 369

Abstract

Ice loss from the world’s glaciers and ice sheets contributes to sea level rise, influences ocean circulation, and affects ecosystem productivity. Ongoing changes in glaciers and ice sheets are driven by submarine melting and iceberg calving from tidewater glacier margins. However, predictions of glacier change largely rest on unconstrained theory for submarine melting. Here, we use repeat multibeam sonar surveys to image a subsurface tidewater glacier face and document a time-variable, three-dimensional geometry linked to melting and calving patterns. Submarine melt rates are high across the entire ice face over both seasons surveyed and increase from spring to summer. The observed melt rates are up to two orders of magnitude greater than predicted by theory, challenging current simulations of ice loss from tidewater glaciers.

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