Document Type


Publication Title

Journal of Glaciology

Rights and Access Note

This Item is protected by copyright and/or related rights. You are free to use this Item in any way that is permitted by the copyright and related rights legislation that applies to your use. In addition, no permission is required from the rights-holder(s) for educational uses. For other uses, you need to obtain permission from the rights-holder(s).

Publication Date


First Page


Last Page


Issue Number


Volume Number


Abstract/ Summary

Gravity wants to pull an ice sheet to the center of the Earth, but cannot because the Earth's crust is in the way, so ice is pushed out sideways instead. Or is it? The ice sheet "sees" nothing preventing it from spreading out except air, which is much less massive than ice. Therefore, does not ice rush forward to fill this relative vacuum; does not the relative vacuum suck ice into it, because Nature abhors a vacuum? If so, the ice sheet is not only pulled downward by gravity, it is also pulled outward by the relative vacuum. This pulling outward will be most rapid where the ice sheet encounters least resistance. The least resistance exists along the bed of ice streams, where ice-bed coupling is reduced by a basal water layer, especially if the ice stream becomes afloat and the floating part is relatively unconfined around its perimeter and unpinned to the sea floor. Ice streams are therefore fast currents of ice that develop near the margins of an ice sheet where these conditions exist. Because of these conditions, ice streams pull ice out of ice sheets and have pulling power equal to the longitudinal gravitational pulling force multiplied by the ice-stream velocity. These boundary conditions beneath and beyond ice streams can be quantified by a basal buoyancy factor that provides a life-cycle classification of ice streams into inception, growth, mature, declining and terminal stages, during which ice streams disintegrate the ice sheet. Surface profiles of ice streams are diagnostic of the stage in a life cycle and, hence, of the vitality of the ice sheet.

Citation/Publisher Attribution

Hughes, T, 1992, On the Pulling Power of Ice Streams: Journal of Glaciology, v. 38, p. 125-151. Available on publisher's site at:

Publisher Statement

© Copyright 1992 by the International Glaciological Society


publisher's version of the published document



Rights Statement

In Copyright - Educational Use Permitted.