Crystal fabric anisotropy causes directional hardening of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream


The dynamic mass loss of ice sheets due to ice flow constitutes one of the biggest uncertainties in projections of ice-sheet evolution and sea-level rise. One central, understudied aspect of ice flow is how the bulk orientation of the ice-crystal lattice (fabric) translates to the mechanical anisotropy of ice. Here, we present a comprehensive analysis of the depth-averaged fabric distribution and corresponding directional flow enhancement factors covering a large area of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream onset region. Our results are based on a combination of methods applied to extensive airborne and ground-based radar surveys, ice-core observations, and numerical ice-flow modelling. They show a strong spatial variability of the horizontal fabric anisotropy and a rapid crystal reorganization on the order of hundreds of years coinciding with the ice-stream geometry. The ice in parts of the ice stream is found to be up to one order of magnitude harder for pure-shear deformation in flow direction compared to isotropic ice, while the shear margins are potentially softened for horizontal simple shear by a factor of two. The high spatial resolution and large-scale coverage of our results is unprecedented and significantly contributes towards more accurate ice-flow models and a better understanding of ice-stream dynamics. Moreover, our estimated time scale of crystal reorganization and methodological approaches can potentially also be transferred to the investigation of ice on extraterrestrial bodies and other geologic materials.

Nature Communications
David A. Lilien
David A. Lilien
Assistant Professor (starting 2024)