Basal conditions at the grounding zone of Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica, from ice-penetrating radar

Knut Christianson, Robert W. Jacobel, Huw J. Horgan, Richard B. Alley, Sridhar Anandakrishnan, David M. Holland, Kevin J. Dallasanta

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We present a comprehensive ice-penetrating radar survey of a subglacial embayment and adjacent peninsula along the grounding zone of Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica. Through basal waveform and reflectivity analysis, we identify four distinct basal interfaces: (1) an ice-water-saturated till interface inland of grounding; (2) a complex interface in the grounding zone with variations in reflectivity and waveforms caused by reflections from fluting, sediment deposits, and crevasses; (3) an interface of anomalously low-reflectivity downstream of grounding in unambiguously floating areas of the embayment due to basal roughness and entrained debris; and (4) a high-reflectivity ice-seawater interface that occurs immediately seaward of grounding at the subglacial peninsula and several kilometers seaward of grounding in the embayment, occurring after basal debris and grounding zone flutes have melted off the ice bottom. Sediment deposition via basal debris melt-out occurs in both locations. The higher basal melt rate at the peninsula contributes to greater grounding line stability by enabling faster construction of a stabilizing sediment wedge. In the embayment, the low slopes of the ice bottom and bed prevent development of a strong thermohaline circulation leading to a lower basal melt rate and less rapid sediment deposition. Thus, grounding lines in subglacial embayments are more likely to lack stabilizing sediment deposits and are more prone to external forcing, whether from the ocean, the subglacial water system, or large-scale ice dynamics. Our conclusions indicate that subglacial peninsulas and embayments should be treated differently in ice sheet-ocean models if these models are to accurately simulate grounding line response to external forcing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1954-1983
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • grounding zone
  • ice shelf
  • ice stream
  • ice-penetrating radar
  • ice/ocean interactions

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Geophysics


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