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DATE: January 17, 2018

SNIP: Scientists are uncovering the mystery of how, where and when important glacial features called moulins form on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Moulins, vertical conduits that penetrate through the half-mile-deep ice, efficiently funnel the majority of summer meltwater from the ice surface to the base of the ice sheet. The lubricating effects of the draining water can lead to faster sliding of the ice sheet. A new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, finds meltwater lakes that form on the ice surface can drain through moulins in a matter of hours.

The new results indicate a potentially much broader importance for lake drainage events, because moulins control the locations where the majority of seasonal meltwater enters the ice sheet, accesses the bed, and accelerates the ice flow, according to Stephen Price, a researcher at Los Alamos and co-author of the new study. “These processes, which aren’t currently accounted for in computer simulations of ice sheet evolution and sea-level change, may need to be considered more carefully in future models,” he said.

While previous studies identified a distinct possibility of a cascading effect from meltwater reaching the bed and modifying local stresses to cause nearby supraglacial lake drainage, the new results provide direct evidence that this effect is more widespread and can act over distances of many kilometers, said Matthew Hoffman, a glaciologist and computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico and lead author of the new study. This long-distance triggering mechanism could make new regions of the ice sheet vulnerable to meltwater-induced speedup, including at higher elevations.