Ice streams

What is an ice stream? | Ice streams around Antarctica | Siple Coast ice streams | Ice stream structures | Ice stream geomorphology | References | Comments |

What is an ice stream?

Ice streams are corridors of fast flow within an ice sheet (ca. 800 metres per year). They discharge most of the ice and sediment from these ice sheets, flowing orders of magnitude faster than their surrounding ice. Their behaviour and stability is therefore essentially important to overall ice sheet dynamics and mass balance[1].  The Antarctic Ice Sheet currently discharges 90% of ice and sediment through ice streams. Antarctic Ice Streams are fed by complex tributaries that extend up to 1000 km into the interior of the ice sheet[2]. These can be seen beautifully in the video below, released by NASA:

Ice streams are typically large features (> 20 km in width, >150 km in length), with a convergent onset zone feeding in to a main channel[3]. Modern ice streams are associated with pervasively deformed till and offshore trough-mouth fans, depo-centres for the large volumes of sediment that are transported from the interior of the ice sheet outwards to the continental shelves.

Ice streams can be constrained by topography or by areas of slow moving ice. They are called topographic ice streams or pure ice streams respectively. Both types show variations in behaviour (both through time and space), which indicates potential for instability and are therefore particularly interesting[1]. Their discharge of ice into ocean basins effects thermal and saline ocean circulation. Ice streams have therefore been a focus for research worldwide over the last 30 years.

Ice streams tend to occupy topographic lows, because:

  • thicker ice leads to greater driving stress at the bed and faster velocity, because internal deformation of ice is controlled by basal shear stress[1, 4];
  • thicker ice is better insulated and has greater basal temperatures, enhancing rates of ice deformation and bed slip from basal melting;
  • Meltwater flows towards and accumulates in topographic lows, and melt rate is greater beneath thicker ice, both of which encourage basal sliding.
  • This positive feedback system, with enhanced flow increasing temperature and basal lubrication, which in turn increases flow, leads to ice stream development in topographic corridors.

Ice streams can also develop in areas with weaker ice, or with a lubricated bed to aid basal motion[1]. Some ice streams are a combination of topographic and pure, bounded by both ice and topography. There is growing evidence that soft deformable sediments are a pre-requisite for fast ice flow; subglacial geology therefore is essential in determining ice stream location[5].

Ice streams lower surface topography, with greater ice-sheet drawdown for pure ice streams, which tend to have greater ice flow volumes. Pure ice streams are also likely to be variable through time and space, shifting location and switching on and off.

The flow velocity, thickness and grounding lines of ice streams are variable over decadal timescales, with observations in Antarctica of thinning, acceleration, deceleration, stagnation and lateral migration[6-9]. However, mechanisms controlling this fast and variable flow are complex and poorly understood[10]. There are a number of potential forcings, which include ocean temperatures, sea level changes, air temperatures, ocean tides, subglacial bathymetry, subglacial geomorphology, topographic pinning points, meltwater beneath the ice stream, thermodynamics and the size of the drainage basin[6].

 Ice streams around Antarctica

Map showing location of modern ice streams around Antarctica, made using velocity data from Rignot et al. 2011

The velocity map by Eric Rignot[11], showing ice velocities in 2007-2009, shows how the Antarctic continent today is drained by ice streams, with tributary glaciers reaching hundreds to thousands of kilometres inland. These dendritic drainage systems pass ice from the interior, near the ice divide, and flow into the ocean or ice shelves.

Siple Coast ice streams

The ice streams around Siple Coast in West Antarctica (Ice Streams A to F) discharge 40% of the ice from the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet[12]. The behaviour of these ice streams is of particular interest, because they may be important to the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (see Marine Ice Sheet Instability)[1, 13]. These ice streams are the world’s only current pure ice streams (except perhaps in NE Greenland). Other glaciers draining into the Ross Ice Shelf are topographically constrained[1].

Ice streams around Siple Coast, using velocity data from Rignot et al. 2011

These ice streams are 50 km wide, 300-500 km long, with ice thicknesses ~1 km. Ice velocities are between 0.1 and 0.8 km per year[1]. There are lateral shear zones along the margins of each ice stream. There are many crevasses near the shear zone as a result of intense deformation.  In between the ice streams the glacier ice is cold and frozen to the bed[14]. Deformable subglacial sediments seem to be a requirement for ice-stream formation on the Siple Coast, with continuous sedimentary basins below the accumulation areas of Ice Streams C and D[15]. The adjacent non-streaming areas overlie harder bedrock, with thin or no basal sediments[5].

The velocity of these ice streams is variable. For example, there is evidence of deceleration on Ice Stream B (Whillans)[16]. Ice Stream C shut down ~150 years ago[7, 17]. Ice Stream D, which currently flows rapidly, shut down ~450 years ago[18]. This is because these wide, pure ice streams are inherently unstable. The glaciers are currently thinning, which may reduce driving stress, thus explaining some of the deceleration[16]. However, in general, the accumulation areas of these ice streams are thickening[17]. Ice Stream C has a strongly positive mass balance because of its negative outflow, and it is the stoppage of this ice stream that has contributed to the positive mass balances[17]. The positive imbalance is therefore driven by internal ice-stream dynamics. Ice flow in the area that once discharged into Ice Stream C now drains into Ice Stream B (Whillans), following thinning of Ice Stream B[18]. During these rapid changes, the Siple Coast grounding line has remained static, rather than undergoing continuous change[19]. These grounding lines may be prone to rapid, rather than continuous recession – see Marine Ice Sheet Instability.

These ice streams are highly variable over short timescales, which makes it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions for short-term observations. Analysis and ice sheet reconstructions over centennial to millennial timescales are therefore very important in analysing cryospheric response to modern environmental change.

Ice stream geomorphology

A classic paper by Chris Stokes and Chris Clark from 1999[3] suggests that the geomorphological record provides diagnostic criteria for identifying palaeo-ice streams. Understanding the locations and dynamics of palaeo-ice streams is important for understanding palaeo-ice sheets. This is because their large ice flux would have effected ice-sheet configurations; investigations on former ice-streams helps understand glacial processes; their interactions with climate help reconstruct past climate change, as well as predicting the response of contemporary ice sheets to future climatic perturbations; their sedimentary flux is comparable with the largest fluvial basins[3].

Palaeo-ice streams leave characteristic features in the sedimentological and geomorphological record, which are summarised in the table below (after Stokes and Clark, 1999).

Contemporary ice stream characteristic Geomorphological signature
Characteristic shape and dimensions
  • Characteristic shape and dimensions
  • Convergent flow patterns
Rapid velocity
  • Highly attenuated bedforms (length to width ratio of 10:1)
  • Boothia-type erratic dispersal trains
Sharply delineated shear margin
  • Abrupt lateral margins
  • Lateral shear margins
Deformable bed conditions
  • Glaciotectonic and geotechnical evidence of pervasively deformed till
  • Submarine till delta, sediment fan or trough-mouth fan
Hypothetical ice stream and Boothia-type erratic dispersal. After: Stokes and Clark, 2001.

Ice stream landsystem

The palaeo-landsystem left behind by an ice stream includes mega-scale glacial lineations (MSGLs) and highly attenuated drumlins. Ice-stagnation features may overprint these landforms as an ice stream switches off or recedes[22].

On the sea floor, grounding zone wedges indicate past pauses in ice stream recession, and scours made by icebergs document the travel of icebergs across the shallow continental shelf.

Further Reading

Go to top or jump to Glacier Hydrology.


1.            Bennett, M.R., 2003. Ice streams as the arteries of an ice sheet: their mechanics, stability and significance. Earth-Science Reviews, 61(3-4): 309-339.

2.            Bamber, J.L., D.G. Vaughan, and I. Joughin, 2000. Widespread Complex Flow in the Interior of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science, 287(5456): 1248-1250.

3.            Stokes, C.R. and C.D. Clark, 1999. Geomorphological criteria for identifying Pleistocene ice streams. Annals of Glaciology, 28: 67-74.

4.            Cuffey, K.M. and W.S.B. Paterson, 2010. The Physics of Glaciers, 4th edition: Academic Press. 704.

5.            Winsborrow, M.C.M., C.D. Clark, and C.R. Stokes, 2010. What controls the location of ice streams? Earth-Science Reviews, 103: 45-59.

6.            Livingstone, S.J., C. O Cofaigh, C.R. Stokes, C.-D. Hillenbrand, A. Vieli, and S.S.R. Jamieson, 2012. Antarctic palaeo-ice streams. Earth-Science Reviews, 111(1-2): 90-128.

7.            Retzlaff, R. and C.R. Bentley, 1993. Timing of stagnation of Ice Stream C, West Antarctica, from short-pulse-radar studies of buried crevasses. Journal of Glaciology, 39: 553-561.

8.            Rignot, E., 2008. Changes in West Antarctic ice stream dynamics observed with ALOS PALSAR data. Geophysical Research Letters, 35(12).

9.            Joughin, I. and S. Tulaczyk, 2003. Basal melt beneath Whillans Ice Stream and Ice Streams A and C, West Antarctica. Annals of Glaciology, 36: 257-262.

10.          Vaughan, D.G. and R. Arthern, 2007. Why is it had to predict the future of ice sheets? Science, 315: 1503-1504.

11.          Rignot, E., J. Mouginot, and B. Scheuchl, 2011. Ice Flow of the Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science.

12.          Price, S.F., R.A. Bindschadler, C.L. Hulbe, and I.R. Joughin, 2001. Post-stagnation behaviour in the upstream regions of Ice Stream C, West Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology, 47: 283-294.

13.          Alley, R.D. and R.A. Bindschadler, The West Antarctic Ice Sheet and sea-level change, in The West Antarctic Ice Sheet: Behaviour and Environment. Antarctic Research Series, vol. 77, R.D. Alley and R. Bindschadler, Editors. 2001, American Geophysical Union: Washington, DC. 1-11.

14.          Bentley, C.R., N. Lord, and C.H. Liu, 1998. Radar reflections reveal a wet bed beneath stagnat Ice Stream C and a frozen bed beneath ridge BC, West Antarctica. Journal of Glaciology, 44: 149-156.

15.          Peters, L.E., S. Anandakrishnan, R.B. Alley, J.P. Winberry, D.E. Voigt, A.M. Smith, and D.L. Morse, 2006. Subglacial sediments as a control on the onset and location of two Siple Coast ice streams, West Antarctica. J. Geophys. Res., 111(B1): B01302.

16.          Joughin, I., S. Tulaczyk, R. Bindschadler, and S.F. Price, 2002. Changes in west Antarctic ice stream velocities: Observation and analysis. J. Geophys. Res., 107(B11): 2289.

17.          Joughin, I. and S. Tulaczyk, 2002. Positive Mass Balance of the Ross Ice Streams, West Antarctica. Science, 295(5554): 476-480.

18.          Conway, H., G. Catania, C.F. Raymond, A.M. Gades, T. Scambos, and H. Englehardt, 2002. Switch of flow direction in an Antarctic ice stream. Nature, 419: 465-467.

19.          Horgan, H.J. and S. Anandakrishnan, 2006. Static grounding lines and dynamic ice streams: Evidence from the Siple Coast, West Antarctica. Geophys. Res. Lett., 33(18): L18502.

20.          Glasser, N.F. and G.H. Gudmundsson, 2012. Longitudinal surface structures (flowstripes) on Antarctic glaciers. The Cryosphere, 6: 383-391.

21.          Gudmundsson, G.H., C.F. Raymond, and R. Bindschadler, 1998. The origin and longevity of flow stripes on Antarctic ice streams. Annals of Glaciology, 27: 145-152.

22.          Stokes, C.R. and C.D. Clark, 2001. Palaeo-ice streams. Quaternary Science Reviews, 20(13): 1437-1457.

23.          Ó Cofaigh, C., J.A. Dowdeswell, J. Evans, and R.D. Larter, 2008. Geological constraints on Antarctic palaeo-ice-stream retreat. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 33(4): 513-525.

24.          Shipp, S.S., J.S. Wellner, and J.B. Anderson, 2002. Retreat signature of a polar ice stream: subglacial geomorphic features and sediments from the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Geological Society of America Bulletin, 111: 1486-1516.

1 thought on “Ice streams”

  1. Pingback: Scientists drill 24000 into western Antarctic glacier

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

This site uses cookies. Find out more about this site’s cookies.