Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Glacier


Albedo-a primary control on surface melt-varies considerably across the Greenland Ice Sheet yet the specific surface types that comprise its dark zone remain unquantified. Here we use UAV imagery to attribute seven distinct surface types to observed albedo along a 25 km transect dissecting the western, ablating sector of the ice sheet. Our results demonstrate that distributed surface impurities-an admixture of dust, black carbon and pigmented algae-explain 73% of the observed spatial variability in albedo and are responsible for the dark zone itself. Crevassing and supraglacial water also drive albedo reduction but due to their limited extent, explain just 12 and 15% of the observed variability respectively. Cryoconite, concentrated in large holes or fluvial deposits, is the darkest surface type but accounts for <1% of the area and has minimal impact. We propose that the ongoing emergence and dispersal of distributed impurities, amplified by enhanced ablation and biological activity, will drive future expansion of Greenland's dark zone.

Concepts: Water, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Glacier, Specific surface area, Type, Sublimation, Glaciology


Supraglacial lakes on the Greenland Ice Sheet are expanding inland, but the impact on ice flow is equivocal because interior surface conditions may preclude the transfer of surface water to the bed. Here we use a well-constrained 3D model to demonstrate that supraglacial lakes in Greenland drain when tensile-stress perturbations propagate fractures in areas where fractures are normally absent or closed. These melt-induced perturbations escalate when lakes as far as 80 km apart form expansive networks and drain in rapid succession. The result is a tensile shock that establishes new surface-to-bed hydraulic pathways in areas where crevasses transiently open. We show evidence for open crevasses 135 km inland from the ice margin, which is much farther inland than previously considered possible. We hypothesise that inland expansion of lakes will deliver water and heat to isolated regions of the ice sheet’s interior where the impact on ice flow is potentially large.

Concepts: Water, Lake, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Glacier, Fracture mechanics, Drainage, Glaciology


Subglacial lakes are unique environments that, despite the extreme dark and cold conditions, have been shown to host microbial life. Many subglacial lakes have been discovered beneath the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, but no spatially isolated water body has been documented as hypersaline. We use radio-echo sounding measurements to identify two subglacial lakes situated in bedrock troughs near the ice divide of Devon Ice Cap, Canadian Arctic. Modeled basal ice temperatures in the lake area are no higher than -10.5°C, suggesting that these lakes consist of hypersaline water. This implication of hypersalinity is in agreement with the surrounding geology, which indicates that the subglacial lakes are situated within an evaporite-rich sediment unit containing a bedded salt sequence, which likely act as the solute source for the brine. Our results reveal the first evidence for subglacial lakes in the Canadian Arctic and the first hypersaline subglacial lakes reported to date. We conclude that these previously unknown hypersaline subglacial lakes may represent significant and largely isolated microbial habitats, and are compelling analogs for potential ice-covered brine lakes and lenses on planetary bodies across the solar system.

Concepts: Water, Lake, Glacier, Solar System, Antarctica, Glaciology, Subglacial lake, Ice cap


The climatic mechanisms driving the shift from the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) to the Little Ice Age (LIA) in the North Atlantic region are debated. We use cosmogenic beryllium-10 dating to develop a moraine chronology with century-scale resolution over the last millennium and show that alpine glaciers in Baffin Island and western Greenland were at or near their maximum LIA configurations during the proposed general timing of the MWP. Complimentary paleoclimate proxy data suggest that the western North Atlantic region remained cool, whereas the eastern North Atlantic region was comparatively warmer during the MWP-a dipole pattern compatible with a persistent positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation. These results demonstrate that over the last millennium, glaciers approached their eventual LIA maxima before what is considered the classic LIA in the Northern Hemisphere. Furthermore, a relatively cool western North Atlantic region during the MWP has implications for understanding Norse migration patterns during the MWP. Our results, paired with other regional climate records, point to nonclimatic factors as contributing to the Norse exodus from the western North Atlantic region.

Concepts: Glacier, Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Ice core, Greenland, Little Ice Age, Historical climatology, Medieval Warm Period


Glaciers in the European Alps began to retreat abruptly from their mid-19th century maximum, marking what appeared to be the end of the Little Ice Age. Alpine temperature and precipitation records suggest that glaciers should instead have continued to grow until circa 1910. Radiative forcing by increasing deposition of industrial black carbon to snow may represent the driver of the abrupt glacier retreats in the Alps that began in the mid-19th century. Ice cores indicate that black carbon concentrations increased abruptly in the mid-19th century and largely continued to increase into the 20th century, consistent with known increases in black carbon emissions from the industrialization of Western Europe. Inferred annual surface radiative forcings increased stepwise to 13-17 W⋅m(-2) between 1850 and 1880, and to 9-22 W⋅m(-2) in the early 1900s, with snowmelt season (April/May/June) forcings reaching greater than 35 W⋅m(-2) by the early 1900s. These snowmelt season radiative forcings would have resulted in additional annual snow melting of as much as 0.9 m water equivalent across the melt season. Simulations of glacier mass balances with radiative forcing-equivalent changes in atmospheric temperatures result in conservative estimates of accumulating negative mass balances of magnitude -15 m water equivalent by 1900 and -30 m water equivalent by 1930, magnitudes and timing consistent with the observed retreat. These results suggest a possible physical explanation for the abrupt retreat of glaciers in the Alps in the mid-19th century that is consistent with existing temperature and precipitation records and reconstructions.

Concepts: Water, Earth, Ice, Glacier, Ice core, Global warming, Little Ice Age, Retreat of glaciers since 1850


Thermally incised meltwater channels that flow each summer across melt-prone surfaces of the Greenland ice sheet have received little direct study. We use high-resolution WorldView-½ satellite mapping and in situ measurements to characterize supraglacial water storage, drainage pattern, and discharge across 6,812 km(2) of southwest Greenland in July 2012, after a record melt event. Efficient surface drainage was routed through 523 high-order stream/river channel networks, all of which terminated in moulins before reaching the ice edge. Low surface water storage (3.6 ± 0.9 cm), negligible impoundment by supraglacial lakes or topographic depressions, and high discharge to moulins (2.54-2.81 cm⋅d(-1)) indicate that the surface drainage system conveyed its own storage volume every <2 d to the bed. Moulin discharges mapped inside ∼52% of the source ice watershed for Isortoq, a major proglacial river, totaled ∼41-98% of observed proglacial discharge, highlighting the importance of supraglacial river drainage to true outflow from the ice edge. However, Isortoq discharges tended lower than runoff simulations from the Modèle Atmosphérique Régional (MAR) regional climate model (0.056-0.112 km(3)⋅d(-1) vs. ∼0.103 km(3)⋅d(-1)), and when integrated over the melt season, totaled just 37-75% of MAR, suggesting nontrivial subglacial water storage even in this melt-prone region of the ice sheet. We conclude that (i) the interior surface of the ice sheet can be efficiently drained under optimal conditions, (ii) that digital elevation models alone cannot fully describe supraglacial drainage and its connection to subglacial systems, and (iii) that predicting outflow from climate models alone, without recognition of subglacial processes, may overestimate true meltwater export from the ice sheet to the ocean.

Concepts: Water, Greenland ice sheet, Glacier, Climate, Hydrology, Drainage, Surface water, Cryosphere


Climate change has played a critical role in the evolution and structure of Earth’s biodiversity. Geothermal activity, which can maintain ice-free terrain in glaciated regions, provides a tantalizing solution to the question of how diverse life can survive glaciations. No comprehensive assessment of this “geothermal glacial refugia” hypothesis has yet been undertaken, but Antarctica provides a unique setting for doing so. The continent has experienced repeated glaciations that most models indicate blanketed the continent in ice, yet many Antarctic species appear to have evolved in almost total isolation for millions of years, and hence must have persisted in situ throughout. How could terrestrial species have survived extreme glaciation events on the continent? Under a hypothesis of geothermal glacial refugia and subsequent recolonization of nongeothermal regions, we would expect to find greater contemporary diversity close to geothermal sites than in nongeothermal regions, and significant nestedness by distance of this diversity. We used spatial modeling approaches and the most comprehensive, validated terrestrial biodiversity dataset yet created for Antarctica to assess spatial patterns of diversity on the continent. Models clearly support our hypothesis, indicating that geothermally active regions have played a key role in structuring biodiversity patterns in Antarctica. These results provide critical insights into the evolutionary importance of geothermal refugia and the history of Antarctic species.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Conservation biology, Evolution, Life, Species, Earth, Glacier, Antarctica


Meltwater runoff from the Greenland ice sheet surface influences surface mass balance (SMB), ice dynamics, and global sea level rise, but is estimated with climate models and thus difficult to validate. We present a way to measure ice surface runoff directly, from hourly in situ supraglacial river discharge measurements and simultaneous high-resolution satellite/drone remote sensing of upstream fluvial catchment area. A first 72-h trial for a 63.1-km2 moulin-terminating internally drained catchment (IDC) on Greenland’s midelevation (1,207-1,381 m above sea level) ablation zone is compared with melt and runoff simulations from HIRHAM5, MAR3.6, RACMO2.3, MERRA-2, and SEB climate/SMB models. Current models cannot reproduce peak discharges or timing of runoff entering moulins but are improved using synthetic unit hydrograph (SUH) theory. Retroactive SUH applications to two older field studies reproduce their findings, signifying that remotely sensed IDC area, shape, and supraglacial river length are useful for predicting delays in peak runoff delivery to moulins. Applying SUH to HIRHAM5, MAR3.6, and RACMO2.3 gridded melt products for 799 surrounding IDCs suggests their terminal moulins receive lower peak discharges, less diurnal variability, and asynchronous runoff timing relative to climate/SMB model output alone. Conversely, large IDCs produce high moulin discharges, even at high elevations where melt rates are low. During this particular field experiment, models overestimated runoff by +21 to +58%, linked to overestimated surface ablation and possible meltwater retention in bare, porous, low-density ice. Direct measurements of ice surface runoff will improve climate/SMB models, and incorporating remotely sensed IDCs will aid coupling of SMB with ice dynamics and subglacial systems.

Concepts: Water, Sea level, Greenland ice sheet, Glacier, Hydrology, River, Glaciology, Runoff model


The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is a system of ocean currents that has an essential role in Earth’s climate, redistributing heat and influencing the carbon cycle1, 2. The AMOC has been shown to be weakening in recent years 1 ; this decline may reflect decadal-scale variability in convection in the Labrador Sea, but short observational datasets preclude a longer-term perspective on the modern state and variability of Labrador Sea convection and the AMOC1, 3-5. Here we provide several lines of palaeo-oceanographic evidence that Labrador Sea deep convection and the AMOC have been anomalously weak over the past 150 years or so (since the end of the Little Ice Age, LIA, approximately AD 1850) compared with the preceding 1,500 years. Our palaeoclimate reconstructions indicate that the transition occurred either as a predominantly abrupt shift towards the end of the LIA, or as a more gradual, continued decline over the past 150 years; this ambiguity probably arises from non-AMOC influences on the various proxies or from the different sensitivities of these proxies to individual components of the AMOC. We suggest that enhanced freshwater fluxes from the Arctic and Nordic seas towards the end of the LIA-sourced from melting glaciers and thickened sea ice that developed earlier in the LIA-weakened Labrador Sea convection and the AMOC. The lack of a subsequent recovery may have resulted from hysteresis or from twentieth-century melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet 6 . Our results suggest that recent decadal variability in Labrador Sea convection and the AMOC has occurred during an atypical, weak background state. Future work should aim to constrain the roles of internal climate variability and early anthropogenic forcing in the AMOC weakening described here.

Concepts: Earth, Glacier, Climate, Climate change, Arctic Ocean, Global warming, Greenland, Thermohaline circulation


Mosses, dominant elements in the vegetation of polar and alpine regions, have well-developed stress tolerance features permitting cryptobiosis. However, direct regeneration after longer periods of cryptobiosis has been demonstrated only from herbarium and frozen material preserved for 20 years at most [1]. Recent field observations of new moss growth on the surface of small moss clumps re-exposed from a cold-based glacier after about 400 years of ice cover have been accompanied by regeneration in culture from homogenised material [2], but there are no reported instances of regrowth occurring directly from older preserved material.

Concepts: Glacier, English-language films, Antarctica, Moss, Glaciology, Mosses