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Douglas Wiens, of the Washington University in St. Louis, in Antarctica.
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Image Courtesy of Douglas Wiens, Washington University in St. Louis

Study of Glacial Earthquakes Shakes Up Idea of How Ice Streams Move
News story originally written on June 5, 2008

New research shows that part of the Whillians Ice Stream in West Antarctica moves more than two feet twice every day in an earthquake-like pattern equal to a Magnitude 7 earthquake. In an earthquake, stress builds between two plates on the Earth's crust. Finally, one plate or the other moves, causing shudders and jolts at the Earth's surface.

A similar movement was observed in the Whillians Ice Stream by the research team. The researchers have measured what they are calling a "stick-slip" interaction on the huge ice stream. The "stick-slip" pattern in the ice sheet is very different that the way scientists usually think of ice streams as flowing at a constant speed.

"Glaciologists model the flow of glaciers using the assumption that it's basically a kind of creeping kind of motion. But recently we've been seeing seismic signals coming from a number of ice streams and glaciers, and no one's been able to interpret them," said Douglas Wiens, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, who led the research team.

The movement happens twice a day and seems to be related to the daily tides of the Ross Sea. The slip takes place over about 25 minutes, so scientists standing right on the slipping ice stream don't feel anything. Most rock earthquakes, which can take place in a few seconds, are felt strongly by people in the area.

The new findings don't say if these ice movements have anything to do with global warming. But they are significant because they add another piece to the puzzle of ice dynamics.

Last modified July 8, 2008 by Becca Hatheway.

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