Sedimentary basins reduce stability of Antarctic ice streams through groundwater feedbacks

Lu Li, Alan R.A. Aitken, Mark D. Lindsay, Bernd Kulessa

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Antarctica preserves Earth’s largest ice-sheet, which in response to climate warming, may lose ice mass and raise sea level by several metres. The ice-sheet bed exerts critical controls on dynamic mass loss through feedbacks between water and heat fluxes, topographic forcing, till deformation and basal sliding. Here we show that sedimentary basins may amplify critical feedbacks that are known to impact ice-sheet retreat dynamics. We create a high-resolution subglacial geology classification for Antarctica by applying a supervised machine-learning method to geophysical data, revealing the distribution of sedimentary basins. Hydro-mechanical numerical modelling demonstrates that during glacial retreat, where sedimentary basins exist, the groundwater discharge rate scales with the rate of ice unloading. Antarctica’s most dynamic ice streams, including Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, possess sedimentary basins in their upper catchments. Enhanced groundwater discharge and its associated feedbacks are likely to amplify basal sliding and increase the vulnerability of these catchments to rapid ice retreat and enhanced dynamic mass loss.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)645–650
Number of pages6
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2022


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