Fjord sedimentation during the rapid retreat of tidewater glaciers: observations and modeling
Boldt, Katherine V
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Ice-ocean interactions remain poorly understood despite the growing recognition that they play significant roles in the complex behavior of glaciers that reach the oceans, which is of broad interest because it contributes substantially to the challenge of predicting global sea-level rise. This research focuses on the dynamics of sediment accumulation near the calving fronts of tidewater glaciers across a climatic continuum from polar to temperate conditions. Rates and spatial patterns of sediment accumulation merit close attention because they can affect glacier stability by reducing the water depth that controls the calving rate, the surface area available for submarine melting, and the ability of tidewater glaciers to advance into deep water. The sediments produced by these glaciers are also of considerable interest because they record changes in glacial, environmental, and tectonic conditions. In light of the recent, well documented changes in climate and glacier extent along the Antarctic Peninsula through much of the last century, a detailed study was developed to understand how modern sediments have recorded these regional changes. Sediment accumulation rates for sixteen cores collected in fjords across a 15° N-S transect from the Antarctic Peninsula to southern Chile were calculated using the decay of naturally occurring radioisotope <super>210</super>Pb. Records from the Antarctic Peninsula show surprisingly constant rates of sediment accumulation (1-7 mm/yr) throughout the past century despite rapid warming, increase in surface melt, and glacial retreat. Cores from the South Shetland Islands, on the other hand, reveal accelerated sediment accumulation over the past few decades, likely due to warming and an increase in surface melt in this region, which straddles the boundary between subpolar and temperate conditions. In the temperate fjords of southern Chile, sediment accumulates faster (11-24 mm/yr). This increase in sediment accumulation with decreasing latitude reflects the gradient from subpolar to temperate climates, and is consistent with glacial erosion being much faster in the very wet, temperate climate of southern Chile than along the colder Antarctic Peninsula. Links between rates of glacier retreat, ice motion, sediment flux, and the evolution of glacial sediment deposits in a temperate setting are explored using a large existing dataset for Columbia Glacier, Alaska and new oceanographic data from the fjord recently exposed by its retreat. High-resolution seismic data indicate that 3.2 x 10<super>8</super> m<super>3</super> of sediment has accumulated over the last three decades; this volume corresponds to erosion at 5.1 ± 1.8 mm/yr averaged over the entire ~1000 km<super>2</super> area of the glacier. A numerical model is developed to relate known patterns of sedimentation and changes in the glacier terminus position to the accumulation of sediment in the fjord during the 30-year period of retreat. The model, which represents both primary sedimentation and secondary reworking, is used to produce a history of the sediment flux from the glacier that is compatible with the observed post-retreat sediment deposit thickness and architecture. The bathymetric history and model results corroborate that the sediment flux increased sixfold within the 1997-2000 period; interestingly this increase is not correlated with concurrent changes in glacier dynamics. It is suggested that the increase resulted from the sediment transport capacity of subglacial rivers increasing due to the retreat-related steepening of the glacier surface over a deep subglacial basin. That major variations in the sediment flux can be controlled by changes in subglacial sediment storage, in addition to changes in climate and the erosion rate, adds richness and complexity to the interpretation of the glacimarine sediment record. The sediment-flux model is also applied to Jorge Montt Glacier, a Patagonian tidewater glacier with very similar behavior to Columbia Glacier, but without the detailed record of its retreat history and other complementary glaciological data. Sediment volume calculations for both glaciers indicate that the effective erosion rate necessary to sustain the mean sediment fluxes during their respective periods of retreat is surprisingly similar, ~5 mm/yr, despite differences in the geographic, tectonic, and geologic settings. For both rapidly retreating glaciers, the numerical model yields a sediment-flux history that produces sediment packages generally consistent with observed bathymetry and internal stratigraphic architecture. On the time scale of retreat, temporal variations in the modeled sediment flux from both glaciers are not related to concurrent variations in ice velocity, as expected. Rather, changes in the sediment flux are attributed to the tendency for sediment to be flushed from subglacial basins due to the progressive steepening of the glacier terminus during retreat. In both fjords, model results corroborate that sediment accumulates rapidly (>1 m/yr) near the ice front. In addition, the model suggests that gravity-driven processes are essential for delivering and redistributing sediment within the fjords to create the observed bathymetry and internal stratigraphic architecture.
- Oceanography