Evolution of drainage system morphology at a land-terminating Greenland outlet glacier

Tom Cowton, Peter Nienow, Andrew Sole, Jemma Wadham, Greg Lis, Ian Bartholomew, Douglas Watson Fraser Mair, David Chandler

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The influence of meltwater on the dynamics and geomorphic impact of the Greenland Ice Sheet is strongly controlled by the morphology of the ice sheet's drainage system. However this system, and its evolution through the melt season, remains poorly understood. Here we present the results of an intensive programme of dye tracing experiments undertaken along the lower 14 km of a land-terminating Greenland outlet glacier over a period of four months during the 2010 melt season. These data are interpreted in conjunction with observations of proglacial discharge, englacial water storage, surface melt rates and ice velocity to produce a detailed picture of the changing hydrology of the glacier. Following the onset of melt in the spring, inputs to the drainage system regularly exceed outputs, causing the englacial water level to rise to the ice sheet surface. During this time there is a rapid transition from distributed to channelized drainage in those parts of the drainage system closed by ice deformation over winter. As the melt season progresses, channel efficiency increases and englacial storage and ice velocity decrease. High velocity events continue to be observed following the channelization of the drainage system however, indicating that hydrological forcing of ice velocity occurs despite the existence of channels during periods when meltwater inputs exceed the capacity of the subglacial drainage system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-41
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number1
Early online date25 Jan 2013
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2013

Bibliographical note

This work was funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (through grants to Nienow, Mair, and Wadham, and a studentship to Bartholomew), the Edinburgh University Moss Centenary Scholarship (Cowton and Bartholomew), and a Carnegie Research Grant (Nienow). We thank Ian Willis, Tim Bartholomaus and an anonymous referee for valuable comments which significantly improved the manuscript.


  • Glacial hydrology
  • Greenland Ice Sheet
  • dye tracing


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