Fast tidewater glaciers


  • M. F. Meier,

  • Austin Post


Some iceberg-calving outlet glaciers flow continuously at speeds normally associated with surging glaciers arid exhibit dramatic instability scenarios related to those suggested for marine ice sheets. No temperate tidewater glaciers are known to have floating termini, but many polar and subpolar tidewater glaciers do. The fast flow of temperate calving glaciers is almost entirely due to basal sliding and appears to be a function of the effective pressure on the bed, which may approach zero, and the longitudinal back stress on the terminus. The terminus boundary condition (the calving relation) is imperfectly known yet is vital to the dynamics of these glaciers. Calving relations for grounded tidewater glaciers have been suggested on empirical grounds but have not been rigorously tested; the calving relations for floating termini are virtually unknown. This, together with the imperfect understanding of basal sliding, inhibits confidence in our understanding of the stability of these glaciers. Columbia Glacier (Alaska) is an instructive example because observations have been made on the major changes in its geometry, calving rate, and dynamics that have occurred in less than 10 years. The calving flux has increased more rapidly than the glacier flux, causing thinning and retreat; as a result, the ice velocity has increased markedly. The short-term velocity changes relate to changes in back pressure (ice recession, tidal changes) and the flux of water injected to the bed. These results have relevance to the mechanisms of basal sliding, glacier surges, and the stability of marine ice streams.