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Ian Joughin

Senior Principal Engineer

Affiliate Professor, Earth and Space Sciences






Ian Joughin continues his pioneering research into the use of differential SAR interferometry for the estimation of surface motion and topography of ice sheets. He combines the remote sensing with field work and modeling to solve ice dynamics problems. Solving the problems helps him understand the mass balance of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets in response to climate change.

In addition to polar research, he also contributed to the development of algorithms that were used to mosaic data for the near-global map of topography from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).

Department Affiliation

Polar Science Center


B.S. Electrical Engineering, University of Vermont, 1986

M.S. Electrical Engineering, University of Vermont, 1990

Ph.D. Electrical Engineering, University of Washington, 1995


2000-present and while at APL-UW

GPS-derived estimates of surface mass balance and ocean-induced basal melt for Pine Island Glacier ice shelf, Antarctica

Shean, D.E., K. Christianson, K.M. Larson, S.R.M. Ligtenberg, I.R. Joughin, B.E. Smith, C.M. Stevens, M. Bushuk, and D.M. Holland, "GPS-derived estimates of surface mass balance and ocean-induced basal melt for Pine Island Glacier ice shelf, Antarctica," Cryosphere, 11, 2655-2674, doi:10.5194/tc-11-2655-2017, 2017.

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21 Nov 2017

In the last 2 decades, Pine Island Glacier (PIG) experienced marked speedup, thinning, and grounding-line retreat, likely due to marine ice-sheet instability and ice-shelf basal melt. To better understand these processes, we combined 2008–2010 and 2012–2014 GPS records with dynamic firn model output to constrain local surface and basal mass balance for PIG. We used GPS interferometric reflectometry to precisely measure absolute surface elevation (zsurf) and Lagrangian surface elevation change (Dzsurf∕ Dt). Observed surface elevation relative to a firn layer tracer for the initial surface (zsurf – zsurf0′) is consistent with model estimates of surface mass balance (SMB, primarily snow accumulation). A relatively abrupt  ~0.2–0.3 m surface elevation decrease, likely due to surface melt and increased compaction rates, is observed during a period of warm atmospheric temperatures from December 2012 to January 2013. Observed Dzsurf∕ Dt trends (–1 to –4 m yr-1) for the PIG shelf sites are all highly linear. Corresponding basal melt rate estimates range from  ~10 to 40 m yr-1, in good agreement with those derived from ice-bottom acoustic ranging, phase-sensitive ice-penetrating radar, and high-resolution stereo digital elevation model (DEM) records. The GPS and DEM records document higher melt rates within and near features associated with longitudinal extension (i.e., transverse surface depressions, rifts). Basal melt rates for the 2012–2014 period show limited temporal variability despite large changes in ocean temperature recorded by moorings in Pine Island Bay. Our results demonstrate the value of long-term GPS records for ice-shelf mass balance studies, with implications for the sensitivity of ice–ocean interaction at PIG.

Increased ice flow in Western Palmer Land linked to ocean melting

Hogg, A.E., and 11 others including I. Joughin, "Increased ice flow in Western Palmer Land linked to ocean melting," Geophys. Res. Lett., 44, 4159-4167, doi:10.1002/2016GL072110, 2017.

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16 May 2017

A decrease in the mass and volume of Western Palmer Land has raised the prospect that ice speed has increased in this marine-based sector of Antarctica. To assess this possibility, we measure ice velocity over 25 years using satellite imagery and an optimized modeling approach. More than 30 unnamed outlet glaciers drain the 800 km coastline of Western Palmer Land at speeds ranging from 0.5 to 2.5 m/d, interspersed with near-stagnant ice. Between 1992 and 2015, most of the outlet glaciers sped up by 0.2 to 0.3 m/d, leading to a 13% increase in ice flow and a 15 km3/yr increase in ice discharge across the sector as a whole. Speedup is greatest where glaciers are grounded more than 300 m below sea level, consistent with a loss of buttressing caused by ice shelf thinning in a region of shoaling warm circumpolar water.

Drainage of southeast Greenland firn aquifer water through crevasses to the bed

Poinar, K., I. Joughin, D. Lilien, L. Drucker, L. Kehre, and S. Nowicki, "Drainage of southeast Greenland firn aquifer water through crevasses to the bed," Front. Earth Sci., 5, doi:10.3389/feart.2017.00005, 2017.

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7 Feb 2017

A firn aquifer in the Helheim Glacier catchment of Southeast Greenland lies directly upstream of a crevasse field. Previous measurements show that a 3.5-km long segment of the aquifer lost a large volume of water (26,000–65,000 m2 in cross section) between spring 2012 and spring 2013, compared to annual meltwater accumulation of 6000–15,000 m2. The water is thought to have entered the crevasses, but whether the water reached the bed or refroze within the ice sheet is unknown. We used a thermo-visco-elastic model for crevasse propagation to calculate the depths and volumes of these water-filled crevasses. We compared our model output to data from the Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM), which reveals the near-surface geometry of specific crevasses, and WorldView images, which capture the surface expressions of crevasses across our 1.5-km study area. We found a best fit with a shear modulus between 0.2 and 1.5 GPa within our study area. We show that surface meltwater can drive crevasses to the top surface of the firn aquifer (~20 m depth), whereupon it receives water at rates corresponding to the water flux through the aquifer. Our model shows that crevasses receiving firn-aquifer water hydrofracture through to the bed, ~1000 m below, in 10–40 days. Englacial refreezing of firn-aquifer water raises the average local ice temperature by ~4°C over a ten-year period, which enhances deformational ice motion by ~50 m year–1, compared to the observed surface velocity of ~200 m year–1. The effect of the basal water on the sliding velocity remains unknown. Were the firn aquifer not present to concentrate surface meltwater into crevasses, we find that no surface melt would reach the bed; instead, it would refreeze annually in crevasses at depths <500 m. The crevasse field downstream of the firn aquifer likely allows a large fraction of the aquifer water in our study area to reach the bed. Thus, future studies should consider the aquifer and crevasses as part of a common system. This system may uniquely affect ice-sheet dynamics by routing a large volume of water to the bed outside of the typical runoff period.

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In The News

Hidden lakes drain below West Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier

UW News and Information, Hannah Hickey

Thwaites Glacier on the edge of West Antarctica is one of the planet’s fastest-moving glaciers. Research shows that it is sliding unstoppably into the ocean, mainly due to warmer seawater lapping at its underside.

8 Feb 2017

Satellite system tracks glaciers' flow in real time

Nature News, Jeff Tollefson

The Global Land Ice Velocity Extraction project (GoLIVE) is the first to provide scientists with regular, semi-automated measurements of ice movement across the entire world. The Landsat 8 satellite covers the planet every 16 days.

16 Dec 2016

RIft in Pine Island glacier points to a coming, broader collapse

Mashable, Maria Gallucci

Scientists say they discovered the reason why a massive iceberg splintered off one of West Antarctica's largest glaciers last year. Ian Joughin comments that the new findings are "something to be concerned about, but it's too soon to tell whether this might be a process that could alter the already substantial pace of retreat" on Pine Island.

28 Nov 2016

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