Gravity analyses for the crustal structure and subglacial geology of West Antarctica, particularly beneath Thwaites Glacier



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is mostly grounded in broad, deep basins (down to 2.5 km below sea level) that are stretched between five crustal blocks. The geometry of the bedrock, being mostly below sea level, induces a fundamental instability in the WAIS through the possibility of runaway grounding line retreat. The crustal environment of the WAIS further influences the ice sheet’s fast flow through conditions at the ice-bedrock boundary. This study focuses on understanding the WAIS by examining the subglacial geology (such as volcanoes and sedimentary basins) at the icebedrock boundary and the continent’s deeper crustal structure- primarily using airborne gravity anomalies. The keystone of this study is a 2004-2005 aerogeophysical survey over one of the most negative mass balance glaciers on the continent: Thwaites Glacier (TG). The gravity anomalies derived from this dataset- as well as gravity-based modeling and spectral crustal boundary depth estimates- reveal a heterogeneous crustal environment beneath the glacier. The widespread Mesozoic rifting observed in the Ross Sea Embayment (RSE) of West Antarctica extends beneath TG, where the crust is ~27 km thick and cool. Adjacent to TG, spectrally-derived shallow Moho depths for the Marie Byrd Land (MBL) crustal block can be explained by thermal support from warm mantle. I assemble here new compilations of free-air and Bouguer gravity anomalies across West Antarctica (from both airborne and satellite datasets) and re-interpret the extents of West Antarctic crustal block and their boundaries with the rift system. Airy isostatic gravity anomalies reveal that TG is relatively sediment starved, in contrast to the sediment-rich RSE. TG’s fast flow velocities could be sustained in this sediment poor environment if higher heat flux in MBL was providing an ample source of subglacial melt water to the glacier. The isostatic anomalies also indicate that TG’s outlet rests on a bedrock sill that will impede future grounding line retreat (up to ~100 km) and temporarily stabilize the glacier.