Loss of Contact with Ridges Below Likely Triggered Pine Island Glacier’s Retreat

The Pine Island Glacier (PIG) is losing ice rapidly. During the past 25 years, the ice of the PIG and its neighboring glaciers in west Antarctica’s Pine Island Bay thinned between 3.9 and 5.3 meters a year, accounting for about 5 to 10 percent of observed global mean sea-level rise. Before 2015, however, the front of the PIG had been at a relative standstill since the 1940s, not retreating as one might expect of a melting glacier. Why? To account for this unique situation, a recently published study in The Cryosphere points to ridges below the ice that likely held the PIG’s ice front in place despite its rapid melting.

In August 2015, the long steady front of the PIG changed significantly when large sections of ice broke off during a calving event when the glacier retreated upstream and its orientation shifted. This change presented an exciting opportunity in 2017 for researchers from the Alfred Wagner Institute for Polar and Marine Research to map the seafloor formerly covered by the PIG.

Photo of the Pine Island glacier
A front section of the Pine Island Glacier (Source: BAS_News/Twitter).

To complete this mapping project, the researchers employed an echo sounder mounted to the hull of the research vessel RV Polarstern, in addition to complementing remote sensing data acquired by satellite. The information acquired by the expedition through echo sounding showed the seafloor features that were present below the PIG. With this data in hand, the researchers had the idea to correlate this information with satellite data from the past to the present to better understand the role of these features for the calving behavior of PIG, according to lead author Jan Erik Arndt, who spoke with GlacierHub about the study.

These survey methods revealed a complex, underwater landscape once covered by the PIG. The discoveries included a 10-kilometer long ridge and two other high points. At its deepest point, Pine Island Bay reaches down over 1,000 meters, while the submarine ridge peaked at 375 meters below the ocean’s surface and the two downstream high points peaked at 350 and 250 meters below the surface

How did these sub-surface features impact the PIG? Satellite data from January 1973 until March 2005 showed a rumple in the PIG’s ice above the location of shallowest section of the underlying ridge. A glacial rumple is similar to a bump on a beach towel that suggests there is a beach toy or pile of sand below it. In the case of the PIG, the ridge below the ice acts as an obstacle in the the way of the ice, leading to a raised section of the glacier directly above the point of contact between it and the ridge. This rumple is not observed after March 2005 in the satellite data, indicating that the ice after this date had thinned to such a degree that it either was no longer in contact with the ridge or was too light to produce a signature on the surface.

Satellite photo of the PIG's calving front.
The evolving calving front of the Pine Island glacier (Source: J. E. Arndt et al.).

The loss of contact with the ridge was consequential. In the time before this separation when the PIG was in contact with the underwater ridge, the ridge acted as a “pinning point,” holding it in place. However, after the ice had thinned considerably, the ridge no longer acted as a restraint on the PIG. As a result, in the time since there was evident contact between the two, four major calving events occurred.

The first of these events took place in 2007 when the PIG advanced and made contact with one of the subsurface downstream high points (A in figure 3). This impact placed what is known as “back stress” on the glacier upstream from the point of contact, causing rifts to form in the ice and ultimately leading to the calving event.

The process leading to the 2011 calving event was similar, the researchers state. In this instance, the second subsurface high point (B in figure 3) trapped a dense cluster of icebergs between it and the PIG ice shelf, placing back stress on the upstream ice leading to the calving event.

Photo of the 2007, 2011, and 2015 calving events in relation to the underlying topography
Before or after the 2007, 2011, and 2015 calving events and the PIG’s position in relation to the underlying topography (Source: J. E. Arndt et al.).

The 2015 event was different: The ice-flow velocity of the northern edge of the PIG’s ice shelf was nearly at a stand still, whereas the velocity of the ice shelf’s central and southern edges increased. Further, the direction of the northern edge’s ice flow shifted around 3 degrees clockwise, while the direction of the central and southern edges did not change (C in Figure 3). The reason? The northern edge of the ice-shelf was likely making slight contact with the submarine ridge, according to the authors.

As a result, the calving line that had not changed orientation in decades finally did change due to the loss of contact between the ice and its previous pinning points as well as from melting from below driven by warm ocean waters. The most recent calving event which occured in 2017 happened along the same orientation, which aligns with a new pinning point to the north near Evans Knoll, a small snow-covered hill that rises above sea level. The point near the knoll is likely one of the last anchors acting on the PIG, according to Arndt.

This new calving line and loss of contact with past pinning points could have grave implications for PIG. A 2017 study on the PIG and a number of other glaciers in the area found that changes to a glacier’s ice shelf propagate upstream within just a few years. For the PIG, this likely means the glacier’s flow will speed up and thinning will increase, leading to further melting.

Photo of Pine Island Glacier rift in 2017
The rift in the Pine Island Glacier that led to the 2017 calving event (Source: American Geophysical Union/Twitter).

It is unlikely the PIG’s calving line will retreat much further over the next few years thanks to the new pinning point stabilizing the glacier near Evans Knoll. However, the authors note that there is continued thinning due to melting. This thinning has the potential to destabilize the glacier and unfortunately may have already started, according to Arndt. The large icebergs produced by the recent calving events have broken up into smaller icebergs much more quickly due to the thinner ice than events in the past, when they remained stable for longer. This ongoing breakup and subsequent melting of calved icebergs will contribute to already rising global sea-levels, threatening the millions of people who live along the coast. And unlike the ridges that held the front of the PIG for decades, many coastal communities will not have anything to hold back the sea.

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