Seawater softening of suture zones inhibits fracture propagation in Antarctic ice shelves

Suture zones are abundant on Antarctic ice shelves and widely observed to impede fracture propagation, greatly enhancing ice-shelf stability. Using seismic and radar observations on the Larsen C Ice Shelf of the Antarctic Peninsula, we confirm that such zones are highly heterogeneous, consisting of multiple meteoric and marine ice bodies of diverse provenance fused together. Here we demonstrate that fracture detainment is predominantly controlled by enhanced seawater content in suture zones, rather than by enhanced temperature as previously thought. We show that interstitial seawater can reduce fracture-driving stress by orders of magnitude, promoting both viscous relaxation and the development of micro cracks, the incidence of which scales inversely with stress intensity. We show how simple analysis of viscous buckles in ice-penetrating radar data can quantify the seawater content of suture zones and their modification of the ice-shelf’s stress regime. By limiting fracture, enhancing stability and restraining continental ice discharge into the ocean, suture zones act as vital regulators of Antarctic mass balance.


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Authors: Kulessa, Bernd, Booth, Adam D., O'Leary, Martin, McGrath, Daniel, King, Edward C. ORCIDORCID record for Edward C. King, Luckman, Adrian J., Holland, Paul R., Jansen, Daniela, Bevan, Suzanne L., Thompson, Sarah S., Hubbard, Bryn

On this site: Edward King
2 December, 2019
Nature Communications / 10
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