Antarctica / Research

Transantarctic outlet glacier dynamics

Portion of Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica (NASA), including the Transantarctic Mountains.

Portion of Antarctica showing West Antarctica and the Ross Ice Shelf, including the glaciers draining East Antarctic ice through the Transantarctic Mountains (Map credit: .

Work on Beardmore Glacier, an outlet glacier in the Transantarctic mountains, has been funded by the National Science Foundation Division of Polar Programs. I am part of this research project, led by Twit Conway (UW) and Paul Winberry (Central Washington University).

Recent observations of rapid changes in discharge of fast-flowing outlet glaciers and ice streams suggest that dynamical responses to warming play a much larger role in the future mass balance of ice sheets than previously considered. Assessment of possible consequences of these responses through simulations is hampered by the lack of information about the basal boundary conditions. Our leading hypothesis is that variations in basal conditions exert strong control on the discharge of outlet glaciers.

We have conducted a suite of experiments to study spatial and temporal variations of basal conditions beneath Beardmore Glacier, and East Antarctic outlet glacier that discharges into the Ross Sea Embayment. Maeasurements included: 1) airborne and surface-based radar to map the ice thickness and geometry of the sub-glacial trough; 2) active and passive seismic experiments, together with ground-based radar and GPS measurements to map the spatial and temporal variations of conditions at the ice-bed interface. The observational data will be used to constrain dynamic models of glacier flow.

Major research questions include:

  • What are the primary controls on the dynamics of Antarctic outlet glaciers?
  • What are the conditions at the bed? How do they vary spatially and temporally, and how might such variability affect the sliding and flow of these glaciers?
  • Could these outlet glaciers draw down the interior of East Antarctica, and if so, how fast?

Our first stage of logistics operated out of the Central Transantarctic Mountains (CTAM) site, see for more information about the research history and future at this site. We arrived to CTAM by LC-130 and then transported to the glacier site by Twin Otter. This season (2013-2014) the team is Howard Conway, Maurice Conway, Paul Winberry, Max Stevens, and myself. Max kept a blog:

Beardmore Glacier and surroundings from the  Central Transantarctic Mountains 1:1,000,000 satellite map (Polar Geospatial Center).

Beardmore Glacier and surroundings from the
Central Transantarctic Mountains 1:1,000,000 satellite map (Polar Geospatial Center).