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Geophysical Research Letters

Breakup of the Larsen B Ice Shelf triggered by chain reaction drainage of supraglacial lakes

Authors

  • Alison F. Banwell,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA
    2. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
    • Corresponding author: A. F. Banwell, Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago, 5734 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637, USA. (afb39@cam.ac.uk)

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  • Douglas R. MacAyeal,

    1. Department of Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA
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  • Olga V. Sergienko

    1. The Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Program, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, USA
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Abstract

[1] The explosive disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf poses two unresolved questions: What process (1) set a horizontal fracture spacing sufficiently small to predispose the subsequent ice shelf fragments to capsize and (2) synchronized the widespread drainage of >2750 supraglacial meltwater lakes observed in the days prior to break up? We answer both questions through analysis of the ice shelf's elastic flexure response to the supraglacial lakes on the ice shelf prior to break up. By expanding the previously articulated role of lakes beyond mere water reservoirs supporting hydrofracture, we show that lake-induced flexural stresses produce a fracture network with appropriate horizontal spacing to induce capsize-driven breakup. The analysis of flexural stresses suggests that drainage of a single lake can cause neighboring lakes to drain, which, in turn, causes farther removed lakes to drain. Such self-stimulating behavior can account for the sudden, widespread appearance of a fracture system capable of driving explosive break up.

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