In this week’s Video of the Week, the world gets its first-ever look at ice stream formation. The video, which was published on the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) YouTube channel on December 17, tracks the rapid movement of the Vavilov Ice Cap, in the high Russian Arctic, from summer 2015 to summer 2018.
In the video the glacier’s speed is color-coded by meters per day of movement in what scientists believe is the first documented transition of a glacial surge to a longer-lasting flow known as an ice stream.
“Ice streams and glacial surges were believed to be separate phenomena driven by different mechanisms,” the AGU wrote in the caption. “But if the authors of the new study are correct, glacial surges could instead be an early stage of an ice stream.”
NASA documented the surge in an April 2019 story “A Surprising Surge at Vavilov Ice Cap.” Glaciologists took notice of the glacier’s abberant behavior in 2013, when it suddenly sprang forward, an unusual development for a cold-based glacier, which tend to move slowly. The finding startled glaciologists because if the Vavilov Ice Cap’s outlet glacier can suddenly transition from stable ice––to ice stream––then so can other ice caps, which would upend sea level rise predictions globally.
“The fact that an apparently stable, cold-based glacier suddenly went from moving 20 meters per year to 20 meters per day was extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented,” University of Colorado Boulder glaciologist Michael Willis told NASA in April 2019. “The numbers here are simply nuts. Before this happened, as far as I knew, cold-based glaciers simply didn’t do that…couldn’t do that.”
Whyjay Zheng is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University and the lead author of the new study. “If you look at the satellite images, it seems like the entire west wing of the ice cap is just dumping into the sea,” Zheng said. “No one has ever seen this before.”