Understanding subglacial hydrology through seismology

Last week, I visited the Boise State Geosciences department to give a seminar on the use of seismology to understand subglacial water flow and sediment transport.  I reviewed two of my recent papers, published in GRL (this in 2015, and this in 2016), and also presented some of the initial results from my work with graduate student, Margot Vore, from Taku Glacier.  I enjoyed getting to know some other Idaho geophysicists and identifying new opportunities for collaboration.


Glacier Dynamics at the University of Idaho

This fall, I’ve moved to the University of Idaho to begin work as an Assistant Professor and expand my lab group.  I’ve begun working with a graduate student who will work with glaciohydraulic tremor data to better understand changes in subglacial hydrologic processes.  Moscow, ID, home to the university, is a great town and I’m looking forward to getting to know the community and landscape while I establish my research here.

Please get in touch if you’re interested in joining my glacier dynamics group as a grad student or postdoc, or otherwise collaborating.



Seismology for glaciology

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I’ll be giving a talk in the plenary session on Renaissance Seismology: Seismology for Non-Traditional Targets at the upcoming IRIS National Workshop, in Vancouver, WA.  I’m looking forward to sharing my perspectives on the tremendous utility of seismology for glacier problems, and learning about the latest seismological research and techniques.  I’m also happy about this being a short trip.  It’s my first meeting out of my new home in Moscow, ID, where I’ll start as an Assistant Professor at the University of Idaho in the fall.

IRIS is the national coordinating body for seismological research in the US – it stands for Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology.


Press write-up of AGU presentation

One of my two presentations at the AGU fall meeting this year is the subject of a well done blog post.  In the presentation, my co-authors and I reported the detection of over one million icequakes produced near the terminus of a tidewater glacier in west Greenland.  Study of these icequakes will allow us to better understand the factors controlling the flow of glacier ice, and ultimately allow scientists to make more precise predictions of sea level rise.

We’re presently about half way through the meeting this year and its been a good week so far.  During the Saturday and Sunday prior to the beginning of the AGU fall meeting, I participated in a planning workshop to lay the groundwork for a monitoring network to observe ice-ocean interactions in Greenland.  I made the case for the value of seismology in understanding tidewater glacier dynamics.

My second invited presentation is a poster on Thursday afternoon. I’ll be sharing observations and interpretations of high-rate velocity variations near the front of one of Greenland’s largest ocean-terminating glaciers.  The presentation is C43B-0805 High-resolution, terrestrial radar velocity observations and model results reveal a strong bed at stable, tidewater Rink Isbræ, West Greenland.



A seismometer deployed at the terminus of a west Greenland glacier for two years, between 2013 and 2015. This station recorded over a million icequakes, year-round.

Plenary talk at the Earthscope National Meeting

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Tim will be attending the 2015 Earthscope National Meeting in Stowe, VT, to deliver a plenary talk on the use of seismology and GPS to learn about glacier dynamics.  This talk, on June 15th, will cover some of the projects Tim has been involved with in Alaska to understand subglacial hydrology, fast glacier flow, and iceberg calving, as well as future opportunities in Alaska and Greenland.

The meeting, from June 15-17, will broadly be discussing Earth’s deformation in North America and beyond, and the future of the Earthscope project.

Time series of calving icequakes can be used to track variations in iceberg calving rate, for example, how calving responds to rising and falling diurnal ocean tides.
Time series of calving icequakes can be used to track variations in iceberg calving rate, for example, how calving responds to rising and falling diurnal ocean tides.

The extended abstract for my presentation is below.

Understanding the Processes Driving Glacier Change with Alaskan Seismic and GPS Data

Timothy C. Bartholomaus, Christopher F. Larsen, Michael E. West, Shad O’Neel, Ginny Catania

Worldwide, glaciers and ice sheets are losing mass and increasing global sea level (Shepherd and others, 2012; Gardner and others, 2013). However, the processes controlling these changes are not well understood. Changes in glacier hydrology and iceberg calving can both increase rates of glacier flow, thereby hastening delivering of ice to the ocean and low elevation regions. The understanding of these two processes is not yet sufficient to reliably include them in ice flow models for the prediction of sea level rise.

The application of seismology and GPS techniques within glaciology allows insight into glacier hydrology and iceberg calving processes. At Yahtse Glacier, a tidewater glacier in Alaska, we seismically quantified calving at unprecedented tidal to seasonal timescales. Tracking of calving-generated icequakes reveals that calving of large icebergs is significantly more likely to occur during falling and low tides than during rising and high tides. We also observe that calving fluxes are greater during the late summer and fall than during winter, suggesting that, on the coast of Alaska, submarine melt of glacier termini is likely a dominant control on the calving rate (Bartholomaus and others, 2013). Background seismic noise (i.e., tremor) also offers glaciological insight. Tremor amplitude rises and falls seasonally and after storms, synchronously with subglacial discharge. Thus, subglacial discharge variations can be quantified at tidewater locations where discharge has been previously unknown.

At Yahtse Glacier and Kennicott Glacier, also in Alaska, we use GPS to observe contrasting responses in glacier motion to melt, rain, and lake-drainage events (Bartholomaus and others, 2008). At Kennicott, speedup responses are short-lived and glacier motion quickly returns to background levels. Yahtse Glacier’s response to hydrologic events is long-lived and leads to progressively slower flow over the course of the summer, demonstrating that in some cases changes in subglacial water routing are not reversible on daily to weekly timescales.

Together, seismic and GPS data offer views of glacier responses to environmental change with temporal resolution that is not available through approximately weekly satellite images. These highly resolved observations allow physical insight that improves our understanding of glacier physics, eventually allowing for better inclusion of glacier dynamical processes in ice flow models. Going forward, Earthscope’s Transportable Array in Alaska expands on the present opportunity to remotely track iceberg calving across coastal Alaska.­ New terrestrial radar interferometers offer a more complete view of ice flow variability by combining the spatial resolution of satellite imagery with the temporal resolution of GPS.


Presentations and sessions at AGU

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This year, I’ll be giving an invited talk in one of the ice/ocean interaction sessions, and convening another session focused on iceberg calving and submarine melt at the termini of tidewater glaciers. My talk, at 11:20 on Wednesday in MW 3007, will describe how we can use seismic noise to observe subglacial discharge at tidewater glaciers (C32B-05). My convened session is co-chaired with Ellyn Enderlin and covers a wide range of oceanographic and glaciological observations and models.  For this session:

  • The talks will be on Thursday at 4pm in MW 3007 (C44B).
  • Posters are on Tuesday afternoon in MW (C23A).  The posters for two other similar sessions are at the same time, so I’m expecting that we’ll have a lively, well-attended poster session.

This is also the first year for which I have scheduled the glaciology program on behalf of the AGU Cryosphere focus group.  The planning for this meeting took place over the spring, summer and fall of this last year. I’m wishing everyone a great meeting, and that conflicts in the schedules of glaciologist conference attendees are kept to a minimum!

Tim participates in international workshop to guide Greenland ice-ocean research

During the last several days, I have taken part in an international workshop to identify the major gaps in the scientific community’s understanding of interactions between the Greenland Ice Sheet and its surrounding ocean.

The workshop on Greenland Ice Sheet-Ocean Interactions, under the acronym GROCE, was hosted by the Alfred Wegener Institute, in Bremerhaven, Germany.  Over the two day meeting, ~28 scientists from Germany, Norway, the UK, Poland, Japan, Canada, the US and other countries framed the questions we considered most essential for understanding Greenland’s rapid changes, as well as the strategies and resources necessary to respond to those questions.  It was interesting and exciting to hear the commonalities and differences in research priorities from the broad cross section of glaciologists and oceanographers in attendance.

The report produced to summarize our workshop will be used to help guide funding agencies and the proposal efforts of the broader scientific community.

Next stop for me: San Francisco.  The annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union starts there on Monday.

Workshop attendees
Attendees at the 2014 GROCE workshop

Watch a presentation of my research

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I recently presented an overview of my research program to date at the weekly seminar of the Univ. of Texas Institute for Geophysics.  You can view it here.

In this talk, I describe my past and ongoing research into how ocean-terminating glaciers can rapidly lose mass through their termini.  This week, I’ll be traveling to Purdue University to make a similar presentation.  An abstract for this seminar is below:

The largest and most rapidly changing glaciers on Earth flow into the ocean. Ice loss from these glaciers will be the largest contributor to sea level rise in coming centuries and is also the least certain component of the sea level budget. These uncertainties are driven in large part by the poor understanding of two processes by which tidewater glaciers and ice sheets lose ice at their termini: submarine melting by warm ocean water and mechanical iceberg calving. 
The fronts of tidewater glaciers are among the most active and inaccessible geological environments.  These challenges have limited the long duration, high resolution calving and melt measurements that yield insight. Using seismology and oceanography, I identify the magnitudes and variability of submarine melt and iceberg calving at Yahtse Glacier, a major tidewater glacier in southern Alaska. I find that the submarine portion of the glacier terminus melts at over 10 m/d during much of the year. In addition, cavitation of icebergs beneath the sea surface can generate seismometer-recorded “icequakes,” revealing that calving varies seasonally and in response to ocean tides. Seismic tremor also offers the first ever view of subglacial discharge from a tidewater glacier.  Discharge increases during late summer, which promotes submarine melt.  Together, these multidiscipline observations improve our understanding of the geophysical processes responsible for rapid ice loss across the cryosphere.