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Warm water flow and mixing beneath Thwaites Glacier ice shelf, West Antarctica

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Anna Wåhlin, Bastien Queste, Alastair Graham, Lars Boehme, Kelly Hogan, Karen Heywood, Robert Larter, Erin Pettit, Julia Wellner

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Abstract

The fate of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest remaining uncertainty in predicting sea-level rise through the next century, and its most vulnerable and rapidly changing outlet is Thwaites Glacier . Because the seabed slope under the glacier is retrograde (downhill inland), ice discharge from Thwaites Glacier is potentially unstable to melting of the underside of its floating ice shelf and grounding line retreat, both of which are enhanced by warm ocean water circulating underneath the ice shelf. Recent observations show surprising spatial variations in melt rates, indicating significant knowledge gaps in our understanding of the processes at the base of the ice shelf. Here we present the first direct observations of ocean temperature, salinity, and oxygen underneath Thwaites ice shelf collected by an autonomous underwater vehicle, a Kongsberg Hugin AUV. These observations show that while the western part of Thwaites has outflow of meltwater-enriched circumpolar deep water found in the main trough leading to Thwaites, the deep water (> 1000 m) underneath the central part of the ice shelf is in connection with Pine Island Bay - a previously unknown westward branch of warm deep water flow. Mid-depth water (700 - 1000 m) enters the cavity from both sides of a buttressing point and large spatial gradients of salinity and temperature indicate that this is a region of active mixing processes. The observations challenge conceptual models of ice-ocean interactions at glacier grounding zones and identify a main buttressing point as a vulnerable region of change currently under attack by warm water inflow from all sides: a scenario that may lead to ungrounding and retreat more quickly than previously expected.
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Original languageEnglish
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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