RIFT-TIP: Rates of Ice Fracture and Timing of Tabular Iceberg Production

Lead Research Organisation: British Antarctic Survey
Department Name: Science Programmes


Calving of tabular icebergs from ice shelves accounts for around half of all the ice lost from Antarctica each year. The icebergs form when full-thickness fractures (known as rifts) propagate horizontally through the ice shelf. The resulting icebergs can be thousands of square kilometres in size, can impact wildlife, shipping and ocean circulation and can modify the shape and stability of the ice shelves which remain, with a subsequent impact on ice discharge and sea level rise. The timing of calving is currently unpredictable and is only included superficially in some ice sheet models, for example by removing ice once a certain thickness is reached. Rifts have been observed to propagate very rapidly, at up to several kilometres per day, or very slowly, stagnating for years or even decades.

Whilst it is well established that ice shelf collapse can lead to glacier acceleration, recent observations also show moderate calving events directly and immediately impacting ice flow and basal melt rate, indicating an urgent need to constrain the timing of this process and whether it will accelerate in the future. Simultaneously, developments in fracture approximation methods driven by engineering applications have made it possible to represent discrete fractures numerically, provided the behaviour at the small-scale and large-scale is calibrated with observations. Lack of observations currently limits the value of this type of modelling in glaciology.

Our research combines direct observations of rift growth on the Brunt Ice Shelf in Antarctica with laboratory experiments on samples of the same ice, which when linked together produce unprecedented detail on the fracture process across multiple scales. This level of detail will be applied to the fracture problem using a new scalable phase-field model that allows microscale processes to be mapped onto a low-resolution ice-sheet-scale grid using diffuse interfaces at crack boundaries. We will conduct laboratory observations of how cracks interact with ice at the crystal level, and in situ observations of how rifts interact with the ice shelf at the kilometre level to validate and test this model. This will illuminate the three-dimensional mechanism behind rift growth and the physical ice properties that control its rate. A step-change improvement in how the calving process is represented in ice sheet models has benefits across the geoscience community, from ice sheet modellers who need to estimate ice shelf buttressing stress and the impact of calving on grounding line dynamics, to large scale earth-system modellers which rely on accurate ice shelf geometry to constrain freshwater fluxes and rates of sea ice formation.


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