Basal mechanics of ice streams: Insights from the stick-slip motion of Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica

J. Paul Winberry, Sridhar Anandakrishnan, Richard B. Alley, Robert A. Bindschadler, Matt A. King

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


The downstream portion of Whillans Ice Stream, West Antarctica, moves primarily by stick-slip motion. The observation of stick-slip motion suggests that the bed is governed by velocity-weakening physics and that the basal physics is more unstable than suggested by laboratory studies. The stick-slip cycle of Whillaňs Ice Plain exhibits substantial variability in both the duration of sticky periods and in slip magnitude. To understand this variability, we modeled the forces acting on the ice stream during the stick phase of the stick-slip cycle. The ocean tides introduce changes in the rate at which stress is applied to the ice plain. Increased loading rates promote earlier failure and vice versa. Results show that the bed of Whillans Ice Stream strengthens over time (healing) during the quiescent intervals in the stick-slip cycle, with the bed weakening during slip events. The time-dependent strengthening of the ice plain bed following termination of slip events indicates that the strength of the bed may vary by up to 0.35 kPa during the course of a single day.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberF01016
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Forestry
  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Soil Science
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Palaeontology

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