Oceanographic Variability in Cumberland Bay, South Georgia, and Its Implications for Glacier Retreat

South Georgia is a heavily glaciated sub-Antarctic island in the Southern Ocean. Cumberland Bay is the largest fjord on the island, split into two arms, each with a large marine-terminating glacier at the head. Although these glaciers have shown markedly different retreat rates over the past century, the underlying drivers of such differential retreat are not yet understood. This study uses observations and a new high-resolution oceanographic model to characterize oceanographic variability in Cumberland Bay and to explore its influence on glacier retreat. While observations indicate a strong seasonal cycle in temperature and salinity, they reveal no clear hydrographic differences that could explain the differential glacier retreat. Model simulations suggest the subglacial outflow plume dynamics and fjord circulation are sensitive to the bathymetry adjacent to the glacier, though this does not provide persuasive reasoning for the asymmetric glacier retreat. The addition of a postulated shallow inner sill in one fjord arm, however, significantly changes the water properties in the resultant inner basin by blocking the intrusion of colder, higher salinity waters at depth. This increase in temperature could significantly increase submarine melting, which is proposed as a possible contribution to the different rates of glacier retreat observed in the two fjord arms. This study represents the first detailed description of the oceanographic variability of a sub-Antarctic island fjord, highlighting the sensitivity of fjord oceanography to bathymetry. Notably, in fjords systems where temperature decreases with depth, the presence of a shallow sill has the potential to accelerate glacier retreat.


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Authors: Zanker, Joanna C. ORCIDORCID record for Joanna C. Zanker, Young, Emma ORCIDORCID record for Emma Young, Holland, Paul R. ORCIDORCID record for Paul R. Holland, Haigh, Ivan D., Brickle, Paul

On this site: Emma Young, Joanna Zanker, Paul Holland
7 February, 2024
Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans / 129
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