Vavilov Ice Cap glacier siberia russia
© NASA / University of Minnesota
Vavilov Ice Cap
The cold-based glacier at the Vavilov Ice Cap in Russia suddenly surged after 2013. Changes there have scientists rethinking how rapidly glaciers in cold, dry areas can move.

Satellite images of dramatic changes in a glacier in the Russian High Arctic is forcing scientists to rethink how cold-based glaciers work.

Cold-based glaciers exist at high latitudes that receive little snow or rain. They rarely move more than a few yards per year.

University of Colorado Boulder glaciologist Michael Willis was studying the Vavilov Ice Cap on October Revolution Island in the Kara Sea north of Siberia when he discovered the glacier began sliding dozens of times faster than is typical, according to a blog post from NASA.

Vavilov ice Cap russian glacier
© Andrey Glazovsky
Vavilov ice Cap, Severnaya Zemlya: a) ice cap location and outlines of its western basin; b) glacier front position from 1963 to 2017.
"The fact that an apparently stable, cold-based glacier suddenly went from moving 20 meters per year to 20 meters per day was extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented," Willis said. "The numbers here are simply nuts. Before this happened, as far as I knew, cold-based glaciers simply didn't do that ... couldn't do that."

The change is clear in Landsat satellite imagery that has been collected since 1985, according to NASA. From 2000 to 2013, the glacier continued to creep toward the sea.

After 2013, the glacier took off. By 2018, the glacier's ice shelf over the Kara Sea had more than doubled. On land, the glacier was also thinning rapidly.

The exact cause for the increased spreading isn't yet known. However, the surge raises concern for all cold-based glaciers, Willis said.

"This event has forced us to rethink how cold-based glaciers work," Willis said. "It may be that they can respond more quickly to warming climate or changes at their bases than we have thought."