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Study Reveals Greenland Ice Loss Accelerating As Last Stable Ice Sheet Becomes

March 26, 2014

Greenland's contribution to sea-level rise was previously underestimated and needs to be accounted for in future projections, according to new research. A previously stable region of the Greenland ice sheet is undergoing dynamic thinning — mass loss caused by meltwater runoff — due to regional warming, reports research published in Nature Climate Change.

Click to enlarge. Changes to surface elevations obtained using satellite data showing the rate of ice surface elevation change has increased over the period of the data between the from diagram a. April 2003-April 2006, to diagram b. April 2006 to April 2009 and through to diagram c. April 2009 to April 2012. Courtesy Nature Climate Change and Khan et al.

Click to enlarge. Helicopter near the front of the Helheim glacier in southeast Greenland. Courtesy: Henrik Egede-Lassen.

Click to enlarge. Frontal portion of the Helheim glacier in southeast Greenland. Courtesy: Shfaqat Abbas Khan.

Click to enlarge. Upernavik glacier, northwest Greenland. Courtesy: Shfaqat Abbas Khan.

Click to enlarge. Helheim glacier in southeast Greenland. Courtesy: Henrik Egede-Lassen

Click to enlarge. Major outlet glaciers in northeast Greenland disintegration into the ocean. Courtesy: Finn Bo Madsen

The Greenland ice sheet, and particularly glaciers in the southeast and northwest, has been a significant contributor to global sea-level rise over the past 20 years. However, the northeast ice stream, which drains 16% of the ice sheet, was not thought to contribute. Research now shows that all margins of the Greenland ice sheet are now unstable—and contributing to sea level rise. 

Shfaqat Khan and colleagues use surface elevation measurements of the entire Greenland ice sheet over the period 1978–2012 to estimate changes in ice thickness near the coast. They find that the northeast ice stream was stable until around 2003, when increased air temperatures caused dynamic thinning to commence. Reduced sea ice at the outlet where the glacier meets the ocean, due to warm summers during 2002–2004, allowed icebergs to break off causing the ice stream to accelerate towards the sea. The team found that the northeast Greenland ice stream basin has been losing more than 10 gigatonnes of ice mass per year since 2006, and this is expected to continue in the near future due to the steady increase in glacier speed and ice loss.

Here is the text of a news release issued by the University of Ohio regarding this research:

An international team of scientists has discovered that the last remaining stable portion of the Greenland ice sheet is stable no more.

The finding, which will likely boost estimates of expected global sea level rise in the future, appears in the March 16 issue of the journal Nature Climate Change [DOI:10.1038/NCLIMATE2161].

The new result focuses on ice loss due to a major retreat of an outlet glacier connected to a long "river" of ice - known as an ice stream - that drains ice from the interior of the ice sheet. The Zachariae ice stream retreated about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) over the last decade, the researchers concluded. For comparison, one of the fastest moving glaciers, the Jakobshavn ice stream in southwest Greenland, has retreated 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) over the last 150 years.

Ice streams drain ice basins, the same way the Amazon River drains the very large Amazon water basin. Zachariae is the largest ice stream in a drainage basin that covers 16 percent of the Greenland ice sheet—an area twice as large as the one drained by Jakobshavn.

This paper represents the latest finding from GNET, the GPS network in Greenland that measures ice loss by weighing the ice sheet as it presses down on the bedrock.

"Northeast Greenland is very cold. It used to be considered the last stable part of the Greenland ice sheet," explained GNET lead investigator Michael Bevis of The Ohio State University. "This study shows that ice loss in the northeast is now accelerating. So, now it seems that all of the margins of the Greenland ice sheet are unstable."

Historically, Zachariae drained slowly, since it had to fight its way through a bay choked with floating ice debris. Now that the ice is retreating, the ice barrier in the bay is reduced, allowing the glacier to speed up—and draw down the ice mass from the entire basin.

"This suggests a possible positive feedback mechanism whereby retreat of the outlet glacier, in part due to warming of the air and in part due to glacier dynamics, leads to increased dynamic loss of ice upstream. This suggests that Greenland's contribution to global sea level rise may be even higher in the future," said Bevis, who is also the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Geodynamics and professor of earth sciences at Ohio State.

Study leader Shfaqat Abbas Khan, a senior researcher at the National Space Institute at the Technical University of Denmark, said that the finding is cause for concern.

"The fact that the mass loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet has generally increased over the last decades is well known," Khan said, "but the increasing contribution from the northeastern part of the ice sheet is new and very surprising."

GNET, short for "Greenland GPS Network," uses the earth's natural elasticity to measure the mass of the ice sheet. As previous Ohio State studies revealed, ice weighs down bedrock, and when the ice melts away, the bedrock rises measurably in response. More than 50 GNET stations along Greenland's coast weigh the ice sheet like a giant bathroom scale.

Khan and his colleagues combined GNET data with ice thickness measurements taken by four different satellites: the Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM), the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), and the Land, Vegetation and Ice Sensor (LVIS) from NASA; and the Environmental Satellite (ENVISAT) from the European Space Agency.

They found that the northeast Greenland ice sheet lost about 10 billion tons of ice per year from April 2003 to April 2012.

According to previous measurements and aerial photographs, the northeast Greenland ice sheet margin appeared to be stable for 25 years—until 2003. Around that time, a string of especially warm summers triggered increased melting and calving events, which have continued to the present day.

A large calving event at the Zachariae glacier made the news in May 2013, and Khan and his team witnessed and filmed a similar event in July.

Increased ice flow in this region is particularly troubling, Khan said, because the northeast ice stream stretches more than 600 kilometers (about 373 miles) into the center of the ice sheet, where it connects with the heart of Greenland's ice reservoir.

"This implies that changes at the margin can affect the mass balance deep in the center of the ice sheet. Furthermore, due to the huge size of the northeast Greenland ice stream, it has the potential of significantly changing the total mass balance of the ice sheet in the near future," he added.

Bevis agreed: "The fact that this ice loss is associated with a major ice stream that channels ice from deep in the interior of the ice sheet does add some additional concern about what might happen."

The Greenland ice sheet is thought to be one of the largest contributors to global sea level rise over the past 20 years, accounting for 0.5 millimeters of the current total of 3.2 millimeters of sea level rise per year.

Coauthors on the paper hailed from the University of Copenhagen; University of Bristol; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Kansas; Utrecht University; The Chinese University of Hong Kong; and Aarhus University.


The Greenland ice sheet has been one of the largest contributors to global sea-level rise over the past 20 years, accounting for 0.5 mm yr−1 of a total of 3.2 mm yr−1. A significant portion of this contribution is associated with the speed-up of an increased number of glaciers in southeast and northwest Greenland. Here, we show that the northeast Greenland ice stream, which extends more than 600 km into the interior of the ice sheet, is now undergoing sustained dynamic thinning, linked to regional warming, after more than a quarter of a century of stability. This sector of the Greenland ice sheet is of particular interest, because the drainage basin area covers 16% of the ice sheet (twice that of Jakobshavn Isbræ) and numerical model predictions suggest no significant mass loss for this sector, leading to an under-estimation of future global sea-level rise. The geometry of the bedrock and monotonic trend in glacier speed-up and mass loss suggests that dynamic drawdown of ice in this region will continue in the near future.


Sustained mass loss of the northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming by Shfaqat A. Khan, Kurt H. Kjær, Michael Bevis, Jonathan L. Bamber, John Wahr, Kristian K. Kjeldsen, Anders A. Bjørk, Niels J. Korsgaard, Leigh A. Stearns, Michiel R. van den Broeke, Lin Liu, Nicolaj K. Larsen & Ioana S. Muresan and published in Nature Climate Change (2014) doi:10.1038/nclimate2161

Read the abstract and get the paper here


News release from the University of Ohio here

Nature press release.

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