Evolution of subglacial water pressure along a glacier's length

Joel T. Harper, Neil F. Humphrey, W. Tad Pfeffer, Tyler Fudge, Shad O'Neel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Observations from along the length of Bench Glacier, Alaska, USA, show that the subglacial water-pressure field undergoes a multiphase transition from a winter mode to a summer mode. Data were collected at the glacier surface, the outlet stream, and in a network of 47 horeholes spanning the length of the 7 km long glacier. The winter pressure field was near overburden, with low-magnitude (centimeter to meter scale) and long-period (days to weeks) variations. During a spring speed-up event, boreholes showed synchronous variations and a slight pressure drop from prior winter values. Diurnal pressure variations followed the speed-up, with their onset associated with a glacier-wide pressure drop and flood at the terminus stream. Diurnal variations with swings of up to 80% of overburden pressure were typical of mid-summer. Several characteristics of our observations contradict common conceptions about the seasonal development of the subglacial drainage system and the linkages between subglacial hydrology and basal sliding: (1) increased water pressure did not accompany high sliding rates; (2) the drainage system showed activity characteristic of the spring season long before abundant water was available on the glacier surface; (3) the onset of both spring activity and diurnal variations of the drainage system did not show a spatial progression along the length of the glacier.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-36
Number of pages6
JournalAnnals of Glaciology
StatePublished - 2005


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