Autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) observations of recent tidewater glacier retreat, western Svalbard

John Howe, Katrine Husum, Mark Inall, James Coogan, Adrian Luckman, Riccardo Arosio, Colin Abernethy, David Verchili

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Recent studies have highlighted the need to improve our understanding of the relationship between glacial-front bathymetry and oceanography in order to better predict the behaviour of tidewater glaciers. The glaciomarine fjords of western Svalbard are strongly influenced by temperate Atlantic Water advected from the West Spitsbergen Current. Marine terminating (tidewater) glaciers locally influence many Svalbard fjords through fluxes of sediments, nutrients and freshwater, however their response to ocean warming and the imprint left by their recent retreat on the seabed remains unresolved. Here we present glacial front data collected by an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) from four tidewater glaciers; Fjortende Julibreen (Krossfjorden), Conwaybreen, Kongsbreen and Kronebreen (Kongsfjorden). The seabed adjacent to the glacial terminus has been mapped providing high-resolution bathymetry (0.5m-1.0m grid cell size), side-scan and photographs with additional simultaneous oceanographic observations. The aim being to survey the glacial front submarine landforms, to identify the water mass structure and to observe any melt water plume activity. The bathymetry data displays a diverse assemblage of glacial landforms including numerous retreat moraines, glacial lineations, crevasse-squeeze ridges and sediment debris flows reflecting the dynamic depositional environment of the glacial front. The age of the features and the annual rate of retreat have been estimated using satellite remote sensing imagery to digitise the glacial front positions over time. The glacial landforms have been produced by the last few years of retreat as these glaciers gradually become land-terminating. The AUV also observed in-situ subglacial meltwater plumes at the two most active glaciers (Kongsbreen and Kronebreen) and an associated signature of warm Atlantic Water occurring at the glacier face. The presence of relatively warm, oceanic waters enhances subsurface melting, accelerating the ablation rate, while fresh (melt) water injection at depth influences local water mass structure and the wider fjord circulation. At the glacial fronts of Kongsbreen and Kronebreen sedimentation from subglacial meltwater plumes dominate the ice-proximal zone and settling from suspension is more prevalent away from the glacier. This study shows how sensitive dynamic glaciomarine systems are to change in the local marine environment and how the use of autonomous vehicles can greatly aid in the monitoring of glacial change by collecting simultaneous high-resolution in-situ datasets where vessel based observations are lacking.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1
Number of pages42
JournalMarine Geology
Publication statusPublished - 5 Aug 2019


  • Autonomous underwater vehicle, tidewater glacier, meltwater plume, retreat moraines, Atlantic Water advection.
  • AUV
  • tidewater glacier
  • meltwater plume
  • retreat moraines
  • Atlantic Water advection

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