Earth Institute Research Projects

Understanding Firn Rheology Through Laboratory Compaction Experiments and Radar Data

Lead PI: Rob M. Skarbek

Unit Affiliation: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

April 2020 - March 2023
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: The ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland are losing mass and contributing to accelerating global sea-level rise. Satellite altimetry provides precise measurement of ice-sheet volume change, but computing ice-sheet mass change the quantity relevant for estimating the ice sheets sea-level contribution requires knowing the density of the ice sheet. The density near the ice-sheet surface also affects age estimates of air bubbles recovered in ice cores, which are a key source of information on past climate changes. Ice-sheet density is primarily controlled by the rate at which firn (snow that has persisted for a year or more on ice sheets) compacts into ice, but there is currently no widely accepted theory of how this compaction occurs. The goal of this project is thus to advance understanding of how firn densifies. The team will conduct laboratory experiments and analyze ice-penetrating radar and ice-core data from Antarctica. A key desired outcome of the project is a new model of firn densification that can be used to improve satellite-based altimetry measurements of present-day ice-sheet change and reconstructions of past climate changes from ice cores.

This project will combine laboratory experiments, numerical modeling, and geophysical techniques to determine the rheology of firn as it compacts to form ice. The team will use two methods to measure firn compaction: (1) lab-based experiments and (2) analysis of ice-core and radar data. For the lab-based work, the team will conduct a suite of compaction experiments on synthetic firn samples under uni-axial strain and constant temperature and axial stress. They will also measure the grain-size evolution. By running a large number of experiments (> 25), the team will constrain key parameters that determine how firn compaction rate depends on density, temperature, grain size, and axial stress. The experiments will be conducted in a table-top apparatus at temperatures as low as -40 degrees C and axial stresses up to 4 MPa. For the field-data-based component, the team will analyze ice-core and ice-penetrating radar data to produce the first coincident set of radar-derived firn compaction rates, borehole temperatures, firn densities, and firn grain sizes. Results from lab and field data will be tied together using a numerical firn compaction model. This model is formulated using conservation of mass, momentum, and energy, along with an explicit description of firn rheology and grain-size evolution. Constraints on firn rheology will be incorporated into this model and the team will use it to examine fundamental questions about how changes in the climate affect firn density. This is a crucial unknown that contributes significant measurement uncertainty in estimates of past and present climate change.