Preprints
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2021-288
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2021-288

  20 Sep 2021

20 Sep 2021

Review status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

Rapid fragmentation of Thwaites Eastern Ice Shelf, West Antarctica

Douglas I. Benn1, Adrian Luckman2, Jan A. Åström3, Anna Crawford1, Stephen L. Cornford2, Suzanne L. Bevan2, Rupert Gladstone4, Thomas Zwinger3, Karen Alley5, Erin Pettit6, and Jeremy Bassis7 Douglas I. Benn et al.
  • 1School of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9AL, UK
  • 2Department of Geography, Swansea University, Swansea, SA2 8PP, UK
  • 3CSC-IT Center for Science, FI-02101 Espoo, Finland
  • 4The Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, 96101 Rovaniemi, Finland
  • 5Department of Environment and Geography, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2M6, Canada
  • 6College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331-5503, USA
  • 7Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1005, USA

Abstract. Ice shelves play a key role in the dynamics of marine ice sheets, by buttressing grounded ice and limiting rates of ice flux to the oceans. In response to recent climatic and oceanic change, ice shelves fringing the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) have begun to fragment and retreat, with major implications for ice sheet stability. Here, we focus on the Thwaites Eastern Ice Shelf (TEIS), the remaining pinned floating extension of Thwaites Glacier. We show that TEIS has undergone a process of fragmentation in the last five years, including brittle failure along a major shear zone, formation of tensile cracks on the main body of the shelf, and release of tabular bergs on both eastern and western flanks. Simulations with the Helsinki Discrete Element Model (HiDEM) show that this pattern of failure is associated with high backstress from a submarine pinning point at the distal edge of the shelf. We show that a significant zone of shear upstream of the main pinning point developed in response to the rapid acceleration of the shelf between 2002 and 2006, seeding damage on the shelf. Subsequently, basal melting and positive feedbacks between damage and strain rates weakened TEIS, allowing damage to accumulate. Thus, although backstress on TEIS has likely diminished through time as the pinning point has shrunk, accumulation of damage has ensured that the ice in the shear zone has remained the weakest link in the system. Experiments with the BISICLES ice sheet model indicate that additional damage to or unpinning of TEIS are unlikely to trigger significantly increased ice loss from WAIS, but the calving response to loss of TEIS remains highly uncertain. It is widely recognised that ice-shelf fragmentation and collapse can be triggered by hydrofracturing and/or unpinning from ice shelf margins or grounding points. Our results indicate a third mechanism, backstress-triggered failure, that can occur when ice ffractures in response to stresses associated with pinning points. In most circumstances, pinning points are essential for ice shelf stability, but as ice shelves thin and weaken the concentration of backstress in damaged ice upstream of a pinning point may provide the seeds of their demise.

Douglas I. Benn et al.

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Douglas I. Benn et al.

Douglas I. Benn et al.

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Short summary
Floating ice shelves stabilise ice sheets by transferring support (backstress) from pinning points. Ice shelves may break up if pinning points are lost, potentially leading to ice sheet instability. We show that backstress from pinning points can become an agent of ice-shelf destruction if ice is weakened enough. We illustrate this process with detailed observations and model simulations of the Thwaites Eastern Ice Shelf, which has fragmented in the last 5 years. Complete break-up is imminent.