Articles | Volume 12, issue 8
Research article
17 Aug 2018
Research article |  | 17 Aug 2018

Diagnosing ice sheet grounding line stability from landform morphology

Lauren M. Simkins, Sarah L. Greenwood, and John B. Anderson

Abstract. The resilience of a marine-based ice sheet is strongly governed by the stability of its grounding lines, which are in turn sensitive to ocean-induced melting, calving, and flotation of the ice margin. Since the grounding line is also a sedimentary environment, the constructional landforms that are built here may reflect elements of the processes governing this dynamic and potentially vulnerable environment. Here we analyse a large dataset (n =  6275) of grounding line landforms mapped on the western Ross Sea continental shelf from high-resolution geophysical data. The population is divided into two distinct morphotypes by their morphological properties: recessional moraines (consistently narrow, closely spaced, low amplitude, symmetric, and straight) and grounding zone wedges (broad, widely spaced, higher amplitude, asymmetric, sinuous, and highly variable). Landform morphotypes cluster with alike forms that transition abruptly between morphotypes both spatially and within a retreat sequence. Their form and distribution are largely independent of water depth, bed slope, and position relative to glacial troughs. Similarly, we find no conclusive evidence for morphology being determined by the presence or absence of an ice shelf. Instead, grounding zone wedge construction is favoured by a higher sediment flux and a longer-held grounding position. We propose two endmember modes of grounding line retreat: (1) an irregular mode, characterised by grounding zone wedges with longer standstills and accompanied by larger-magnitude retreat events, and (2) a steady mode, characterised by moraine sequences that instead represent more frequent but smaller-magnitude retreat events. We suggest that while sediment accumulation and progradation may prolong the stability of a grounding line position, progressive development of sinuosity in the grounding line due to spatially variable sediment delivery likely destabilises the grounding position by enhanced ablation, triggering large-magnitude retreat events. Here, the concept of stability is multifaceted and paradoxical, and neither mode can be characterised as marking fast or slow retreat. Diagnosing grounding line stability based on landform products should be considered for a wider geographic range, yet this large dataset of landforms prompts the need to better understand the sensitivity of marine-based grounding lines to processes and feedbacks governing retreat and what stability means in the context of future grounding line behaviour.

Short summary
Using thousands of grounding line landforms in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, we observe two distinct landform types associated with contrasting styles of grounding line retreat. We characterise landform morphology, examine factors that control landform morphology and distribution, and explore drivers of grounding line (in)stability. This study highlights the importance of understanding thresholds which may destabilise a system and of controls on grounding line retreat over a range of timescales.