Upper and lower limits on the stability of calving glaciers from the yield strength envelope of ice

J. N. Bassis, C. C. Walker


Observations indicate that substantial changes in the dynamics of marine-terminating ice sheets and glaciers are tightly coupled to calving-induced changes in the terminus position. However, the calving process itself remains poorly understood and is not well parametrized in current numerical ice sheet models. In this study, we address this uncertainty by deriving plausible upper and lower limits for the maximum stable ice thickness at the calving face of marine-terminating glaciers, using two complementary models. The first model assumes that a combination of tensile and shear failure can render the ice cliff near the terminus unstable and/or enable pre-existing crevasses to intersect. A direct consequence of this model is that thick glaciers must terminate in deep water to stabilize the calving front, yielding a predicted maximum ice cliff height that increases with increasing water depth, consistent with observations culled from glaciers in West Greenland, Antarctica, Svalbard and Alaska. The second model considers an analogous lower limit derived by assuming that the ice is already fractured and fractures are lubricated by pore pressure. In this model, a floating ice tongue can only form when the ice entering the terminus region is relatively intact with few pre-existing, deeply penetrating crevasses.

  • Received July 13, 2011.
  • Accepted October 25, 2011.
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