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Thermal convection in ice sheets: New data, new tests

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DOI: 10.4236/ns.2012.47056    3,903 Downloads   6,440 Views  


Thermal convection in the Antarctic Ice Sheet was proposed in 1970. Demonstrating its existence proved to be elusive. In 2009, tributaries to ice streams were postulated as the surface expression of underlying thermal convection rolls aligned in directions of advective ice flow. Two definitive tests of this hypothesis are now possible, using highly accurate ice elevations and velocities provided by the European, Japanese, and Canadian Space Agencies that allow icestream tributaries and their velocities to be mapped. These tests are 1) measuring lowering of tributary surfaces to see if lowering is due only to advective ice thinning, or also requires lowering en masse in the broad descending part of convective flow, and 2) measuring transverse surface ice velocities to see if ice entering tributaries from the sides increases while crossing lateral shear zones, as would be required if this flow is augmented by convective flow ascending in the narrow side shear zones and diverted into tributaries by advective ice flow. If (1) and (2) are applied to tributaries converging on Byrd Glacier, the same measurements can be conducted when tributaries pack together to become “flow stripes” down Byrd Glacier and onto the Ross Ice Shelf to see if (2) is reduced when lateral advection stops. This could determine if thermal convection remains active or shuts down as ice thins. Thermal convection in the Antarctic Ice Sheet would raise three questions. Can it cause the ice sheet to self-destruct as convective flow turns on and off? Does it render invalid climate records extracted at depth from ice cores? Can the ice sheet be studied as a miniature mantle analogous in some respects to Earth’s mantle?

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The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

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Hughes, T. (2012) Thermal convection in ice sheets: New data, new tests. Natural Science, 4, 409-418. doi: 10.4236/ns.2012.47056.


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