Measured basal water pressure variability of the western Greenland Ice Sheet: Implications for hydraulic potential

Patrick J. Wright, Joel T. Harper, Neil F. Humphrey, Toby W. Meierbachtol

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Scopus citations


The gradient of the hydraulic potential field at the ice-bedrock interface beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) dictates the routing and energetics of subglacial water, thereby influencing drainage system characteristics and sliding dynamics. In the ablation zone of the GrIS, variable water pressure due to an active subglacial drainage system and basal topography with high relief potentially interact to drive unknown spatial patterns and temporal changes in the hydraulic potential field. Here we present a suite of water pressure measurements collected in 13 boreholes along a 46 km transect on the western GrIS to investigate the role of spatial and temporal basal water pressure adjustments in hydraulic potential gradient dynamics. All borehole sites show pressures with similar seasonality, having relatively steady and high values during winter, variable and irregular behavior during spring and fall, and diurnal cycles that can persist for multiple weeks during the peak melt season. Despite much higher variability during the melt season, the median pressure of the summer period is nearly the same as the median pressure of the winter period. However, time variability of water pressure due to basal drainage processes can force changes in the magnitude and orientation of the hydraulic potential field over diurnal periods. We find that the basal water pressure across the transect generally mimics the ice thickness field but with superimposed large pressure gradients that develop at shorter scales within the basal drainage system. This leads to a complex hydraulic potential field across regions of similar ice thickness.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1134-1147
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016


  • Greenland
  • basal water pressure
  • hydraulic potential
  • hydrology


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