Research: Helheim Glacier hydrology

Given expected increases in meltwater generation over the coming decades, understanding the state of the subglacial hydrologic system of Helheim Glacier is crucial to projecting future ice mass loss. We are conducting a system-scale characterization of the hydrology of Helheim Glacier, starting at its origins where the firn aquifer drains to the bed through crevasses.

Satellite view of Helheim Glacier
Our field site, ~40 km upstream of the terminus of Helheim Glacier, in Southeast Greenland, and just upstream of a high-elevation crevasse field (gray streaks to the right of the blue circle).

Over three field seasons (2022, 2023, 2024), we will deploy a half-dozen geophysical instruments to observe the water inside and under Helheim Glacier from its surface. These instruments include a seismoelectric exploration system, strain diamonds of GPS receivers in a crevasse field, multiple radars (ApRES and “regular” ground-penetrating radar), and magnetic resonance technology.

Four GPS receivers comprise a strain diamond, which we will set up around a crevasse or set of crevasses. Over time, as the crevasse fills with water and expands, the GPS receivers will detect this in detail. We hypothesize that the crevasse opens and widens rapidly (over a few days or weeks). The GPS data will support or refute this idea.

The time-evolution of crevasse width we will observe is directly comparable to the output of the crevasse propagation model we are developing.  The crevasse model, in turn, sits within a broader system of models that follows the water form the surface, downward through the snow, laterally through the firn aquifer, through the crevasse and, finally, to the subglacial water system that leads to the ocean. The GPS data will be used to validate the first three stages of this hydrologic system model.

UB personnel: Kristin Poinar, Jess Mejia, and a graduate student (start date: Fall 2022). We are accepting inquiries (Fall 2021) and applications (December 2021) for the graduate student position.

Our collaborators are at Georgia Tech (Winnie Chu’s lab) and Dartmouth (Colin Meyer’s lab).

The Heising-Simons Foundation has funded this project as part of a large effort to characterize the recent behavior of Helheim Glacier, from the snow surface to the fjord mouth.