Physics of a glacial 'slushy' reveal granular forces on a massive scale

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | April 30, 2018

"We've connected microscopic theories for the mechanics of granular flowing with the world's largest granular material — an ice mélange," says Justin Burton, a physicist at Emory University and lead author of the research. The time lapse video, by co-author Jason Amundson of the University of Alaska Southeast, shows icebergs breaking off of the glacier and entering the mélange in Ilulissat fjord.

The laws for how granular materials flow apply even at the giant, geophysical scale of icebergs piling up in the ocean at the outlet of a glacier, scientists have shown.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the findings, describing the dynamics of the clog of icebergs — known as an ice mélange — in front of Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier. The fast-moving glacier is considered a bellwether for the effects of climate change.

“We’ve connected microscopic theories for the mechanics of granular flowing with the world’s largest granular material — a glacial ice mélange,” says Justin Burton, a physicist at Emory University and lead author of the paper. “Our results could help researchers who are trying to understand the future evolution of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. We’ve showed that an ice mélange could potentially have a large and measurable effect on the production of large icebergs by a glacier.”

The National Science Foundation funded the research, which brought together physicists who study the fundamental mechanics of granular materials in laboratories and glaciologists who spend their summers exploring polar ice sheets.

“Glaciologists generally deal with slow, steady deformation of glacial ice, which behaves like thick molasses — a viscous material creeping towards the sea,” says co-author Jason Amundson, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska Southeast, Juneau. “Ice mélange, on the other hand, is fundamentally a granular material — essentially a giant slushy — that is governed by different physics. We wanted to understand the behavior of ice mélange and its effects on glaciers.”

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