Relating bed character and subglacial morphology using seismic data from Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica

Atsuhiro Muto, Sridhar Anandakrishnan, Richard B. Alley, Huw J. Horgan, Byron R. Parizek, Stephen Koellner, Knut Christianson, Nicholas Holschuh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Seismic measurements on Thwaites Glacier show a spatially variable bed character, with implications for ice-sheet stability. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing mass rapidly through outlet glaciers and ice streams in the Amundsen Sea Embayment, including Thwaites Glacier, where limited observations and modeling suggest that ice-flow rates depend on bed properties. Here we characterize bed properties of Thwaites Glacier based on amplitude analysis of reflection-seismic data from a ∼40-km-long profile collected in the approximate flow direction and two ∼10-km-long profiles transverse to flow. The upstream portion of the seismic profile reveals a ∼12-km long sedimentary basin with ice-flow-aligned bedforms capped by a continuous till layer that is likely soft and deforming (porosity ∼0.4–0.45), with several locations where water has pooled at the bed. Downstream of the sedimentary basin, the bed rises by ∼400 m over ∼25 km into subglacial highlands. Our seismic survey of these subglacial highlands reveals strong spatial variations in bed character across rugged topography (∼200 m amplitude at ∼2- to 5-km wavelength) resembling crag-and-tails. Till on the stoss sides (facing upglacier) of topographic highs is more consolidated (porosity ∼0.3–0.35 or lower), whereas the lee sides (facing downglacier) and flat regions exhibit porosity similar to the till of the upstream sedimentary basin. Modeling studies could use the observed correlation between bed character and bed aspect and slope to extend our observations to other parts of Thwaites Glacier, resulting in more-realistic models of future grounding-line retreat. Our findings highlight the need for more geophysical constraints on bed properties for important outlets in Antarctica and Greenland.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)199-206
Number of pages8
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Feb 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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