Airborne geophysical investigation targets basal boundary conditions for the Institute and Moller ice streams, West Antarctica

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Environment


The Institute and Möller ice streams (IIS/MIS) drain about 20% of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) to the Ronne Ice Shelf, yet our knowledge of their current form and flow history is severely restricted compared with other fast flowing regions in West Antarctica. Data relating to the ice thickness and the ice-sheet bed is limited to reconnaissance transects acquired in the 1970s. Bingham and Siegert (2007) inspected these data, and showed the remarkably smooth and flat bed was similar to the Siple Coast ice streams that drain to the Ross Ice Shelf. As the Siple Coast region is thought to be underlain by marine sediments, deposited when the ice sheet size was smaller than today, Bingham and Siegert (2007) concluded a similar, probably simultaneous, history for the Institute/Möller region. The implications of this finding are significant for future changes in West Antarctica. Bingham and Siegert's (2007) analysis allows us to hypothesise substantial former ice-shelf loss and grounding line retreat in two of the three major drainage outlets of West Antarctica. An extensive airborne geophysical survey of the Institute and Möller ice streams is therefore clearly warranted, to test this hypothesis and better understand the risk of future change. The survey will also allow a better depiction of bed topography and geological boundary conditions in West Antarctica, which will allow us to better quantify the flow and form of the entire WAIS through numerical modelling. The project's objectives are as follows. 1. To undertake an airborne geophysical survey of the Institute and Möller ice streams of West Antarctica. 2. To quantify bed topography and measure bed roughness from radar data. 3. To map englacial structures (layering and crevasses). 4. To determine power reflection coefficients, forming an appreciation of basal water distribution. 5. To analyse magnetic and gravity anomalies to derive geological boundary conditions for ice flow. 6. To employ numerical modelling to quantify modern and ancient ice flow processes. 7. To use numerical modelling to predict the risk of former changes reoccurring. This project will result in the following deliverables: 1. The quantification of subglacial topography (and bed roughness) in a hitherto poorly known region of West Antarctica. This information will be made available to the BEDMAP II database, and will make a fundamental contribution as an ice sheet modelling boundary condition. We will analyse these data to determine landscape evolution and ice sheet history. 2. The classification of subglacial thermal conditions and locations of subglacial lakes. This will allow us to comprehend how ice stream flow and subglacial lake/hydrology evolution is both interrelated and affected by subglacial geology and thermal conditions. 3. The measurement of the englacial structure in the WAIS. We will analyse this information to calculate the flow history of the ice sheet and to delineate the margins of the IIS and MIS both now and in the recent past. 4. The definition of crustal structure and subglacial geology of the IIS and MIS catchments of the WAIS. The glacial history of the WAIS is of direct relevance to assessments of the present day risk of collapse and sea level rise. We aim to report our results directly to the international scientific community by linking to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research's (SCAR) scientific research programme entitled Antarctic Climate Evolution (ACE), which integrates geology and geophy sical datasets, forming hypotheses concerning past changes, which can be tested through modelling. The ACE link also allows us to disseminate results to the IPCC through SCAR's observer status in that organisation. We will also make results available to the SCAR programme named Subglacial Antarctic Lake Environments (SALE) and will contribute the new magnetic dataset to the international Antarctic Digital Magnetic Anomaly Project.


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Description New bed data for West Antarctica

New radar data were collected over a region around the size of England, and imported into the new BEDMAP2 depiction of Antarctic topography. The dataset is one of the largest built for West Antarctica in the last 10 years, and has provided a major change in our understanding of this region, including the identification of a major deep basin upstream of the ice sheet grounding line, that may make part of the ice sheet susceptible to change.


We have used airborne gravity and magnetics data to to reveal previously unknown information on the tectonic structures in West Antarctica and how they relate to other known tectonics. Importantly, we have shown how ice sheet development is linked to and controlled by the geological legacy.

Bed conditions

We have discovered major new channels beneath the West Antarctic ice sheet, formed by former action of a temperate ice sheet (possibly 3 millions years ago). Similar discoveries have been made in other regions of the continent.


A major planar surface (the size of Wales) has been discovered, being an remnant of the preglacial land surface.
Exploitation Route We have provided new and important insights regarding Antarctic glaciology, which will feed into future research in this areas, as well as education about the subject. It may also contribute to future policy regarding the impacts of climate change on the cryosphere.
Sectors Education,Environment