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Concept: Greenland ice sheet


There is a general consensus among Earth scientists that melting of land ice greatly contributes to sea-level rise (SLR) and that future warming will exacerbate the risks posed to human civilization. As land ice is lost to the oceans, both the Earth’s gravitational and rotational potentials are perturbed, resulting in strong spatial patterns in SLR, termed sea-level fingerprints. We lack robust forecasting models for future ice changes, which diminishes our ability to use these fingerprints to accurately predict local sea-level (LSL) changes. We exploit an advanced mathematical property of adjoint systems and determine the exact gradient of sea-level fingerprints with respect to local variations in the ice thickness of all of the world’s ice drainage systems. By exhaustively mapping these fingerprint gradients, we form a new diagnosis tool, henceforth referred to as gradient fingerprint mapping (GFM), that readily allows for improved assessments of future coastal inundation or emergence. We demonstrate that for Antarctica and Greenland, changes in the predictions of inundation at major port cities depend on the location of the drainage system. For example, in London, GFM shows LSL that is significantly affected by changes on the western part of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS), whereas in New York, LSL change predictions are greatly sensitive to changes in the northeastern portions of the GrIS. We apply GFM to 293 major port cities to allow coastal planners to readily calculate LSL change as more reliable predictions of cryospheric mass changes become available.

Concepts: Water, Gradient, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Oceanography, Prediction, Atlantic Ocean, Forecasting


Accurate quantification of the millennial-scale mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet (GrIS) and its contribution to global sea-level rise remain challenging because of sparse in situ observations in key regions. Glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) is the ongoing response of the solid Earth to ice and ocean load changes occurring since the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; ~21 thousand years ago) and may be used to constrain the GrIS deglaciation history. We use data from the Greenland Global Positioning System network to directly measure GIA and estimate basin-wide mass changes since the LGM. Unpredicted, large GIA uplift rates of +12 mm/year are found in southeast Greenland. These rates are due to low upper mantle viscosity in the region, from when Greenland passed over the Iceland hot spot about 40 million years ago. This region of concentrated soft rheology has a profound influence on reconstructing the deglaciation history of Greenland. We reevaluate the evolution of the GrIS since LGM and obtain a loss of 1.5-m sea-level equivalent from the northwest and southeast. These same sectors are dominating modern mass loss. We suggest that the present destabilization of these marine-based sectors may increase sea level for centuries to come. Our new deglaciation history and GIA uplift estimates suggest that studies that use the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite mission to infer present-day changes in the GrIS may have erroneously corrected for GIA and underestimated the mass loss by about 20 gigatons/year.

Concepts: Earth, Sea level, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glaciology, Post-glacial rebound


Global mean sea level has been steadily rising over the last century, is projected to increase by the end of this century, and will continue to rise beyond the year 2100 unless the current global mean temperature trend is reversed. Inertia in the climate and global carbon system, however, causes the global mean temperature to decline slowly even after greenhouse gas emissions have ceased, raising the question of how much sea-level commitment is expected for different levels of global mean temperature increase above preindustrial levels. Although sea-level rise over the last century has been dominated by ocean warming and loss of glaciers, the sensitivity suggested from records of past sea levels indicates important contributions should also be expected from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets. Uncertainties in the paleo-reconstructions, however, necessitate additional strategies to better constrain the sea-level commitment. Here we combine paleo-evidence with simulations from physical models to estimate the future sea-level commitment on a multimillennial time scale and compute associated regional sea-level patterns. Oceanic thermal expansion and the Antarctic Ice Sheet contribute quasi-linearly, with 0.4 m °C(-1) and 1.2 m °C(-1) of warming, respectively. The saturation of the contribution from glaciers is overcompensated by the nonlinear response of the Greenland Ice Sheet. As a consequence we are committed to a sea-level rise of approximately 2.3 m °C(-1) within the next 2,000 y. Considering the lifetime of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, this imposes the need for fundamental adaptation strategies on multicentennial time scales.

Concepts: Sea level, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Climate change, Antarctica, Greenhouse gas, Global warming, West Antarctic Ice Sheet


Previously, a large platinum (Pt) anomaly was reported in the Greenland ice sheet at the Younger Dryas boundary (YDB) (12,800 Cal B.P.). In order to evaluate its geographic extent, fire-assay and inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (FA and ICP-MS) elemental analyses were performed on 11 widely separated archaeological bulk sedimentary sequences. We document discovery of a distinct Pt anomaly spread widely across North America and dating to the Younger Dryas (YD) onset. The apparent synchroneity of this widespread YDB Pt anomaly is consistent with Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 (GISP2) data that indicated atmospheric input of platinum-rich dust. We expect the Pt anomaly to serve as a widely-distributed time marker horizon (datum) for identification and correlation of the onset of the YD climatic episode at 12,800 Cal B.P. This Pt datum will facilitate the dating and correlating of archaeological, paleontological, and paleoenvironmental data between sequences, especially those with limited age control.

Concepts: Mass spectrometry, Earth, United States, Greenland ice sheet, North America, Paleontology, Greenland, Younger Dryas


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


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


Volcanic eruptions can impact the mass balance of ice sheets through changes in climate and the radiative properties of the ice. Yet, empirical evidence highlighting the sensitivity of ancient ice sheets to volcanism is scarce. Here we present an exceptionally well-dated annual glacial varve chronology recording the melting history of the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet at the end of the last deglaciation (∼13,200-12,000 years ago). Our data indicate that abrupt ice melting events coincide with volcanogenic aerosol emissions recorded in Greenland ice cores. We suggest that enhanced ice sheet runoff is primarily associated with albedo effects due to deposition of ash sourced from high-latitude volcanic eruptions. Climate and snowpack mass-balance simulations show evidence for enhanced ice sheet runoff under volcanically forced conditions despite atmospheric cooling. The sensitivity of past ice sheets to volcanic ashfall highlights the need for an accurate coupling between atmosphere and ice sheet components in climate models.

Concepts: Greenland ice sheet, Ice, Climate, Atmosphere, Volcano, Antarctica, Ice core, Ice cap


The land-terminating margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet has slowed down in recent decades, although the causes and implications for future ice flow are unclear. Explained originally by a self-regulating mechanism where basal slip reduces as drainage evolves from low to high efficiency, recent numerical modeling invokes a sedimentary control of ice sheet flow as an alternative hypothesis. Although both hypotheses can explain the recent slowdown, their respective forecasts of a long-term deceleration versus an acceleration of ice flow are contradictory. We present amplitude-versus-angle seismic data as the first observational test of the alternative hypothesis. We document transient modifications of basal sediment strengths by rapid subglacial drainages of supraglacial lakes, the primary current control on summer ice sheet flow according to our numerical model. Our observations agree with simulations of initial postdrainage sediment weakening and ice flow accelerations, and subsequent sediment restrengthening and ice flow decelerations, and thus confirm the alternative hypothesis. Although simulated melt season acceleration of ice flow due to weakening of subglacial sediments does not currently outweigh winter slowdown forced by self-regulation, they could dominate over the longer term. Subglacial sediments beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet must therefore be mapped and characterized, and a sedimentary control of ice flow must be evaluated against competing self-regulation mechanisms.

Concepts: Scientific method, Sediment, Greenland ice sheet, Glacier, Observation, Hypothesis, Classical mechanics, Euclidean vector


The Greenland ice sheet (GIS) is losing mass at an increasing rate due to surface melt and flow acceleration in outlet glaciers. Currently, there is a large disagreement between observed and simulated ice flow, which may arise from inaccurate parameterization of basal motion, subglacial hydrology or geothermal heat sources. Recently it was suggested that there may be a hidden heat source beneath GIS caused by a higher than expected geothermal heat flux (GHF) from the Earth’s interior. Here we present the first direct measurements of GHF from beneath a deep fjord basin in Northeast Greenland. Temperature and salinity time series (2005-2015) in the deep stagnant basin water are used to quantify a GHF of 93 ± 21 mW m-2 which confirm previous indirect estimated values below GIS. A compilation of heat flux recordings from Greenland show the existence of geothermal heat sources beneath GIS and could explain high glacial ice speed areas such as the Northeast Greenland ice stream.

Concepts: Water, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Glacier, Greenland, Jakobshavn Isbræ, Ice stream, Glaciers


The melting of polar ice sheets is a major contributor to global sea-level rise. Early estimates of the mass lost from the Greenland ice cap, based on satellite gravity data collected by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, have widely varied. Although the continentally and decadally averaged estimated trends have now more or less converged, to this date, there has been little clarity on the detailed spatial distribution of Greenland’s mass loss and how the geographical pattern has varied on relatively shorter time scales. Here, we present a spatially and temporally resolved estimation of the ice mass change over Greenland between April of 2002 and August of 2011. Although the total mass loss trend has remained linear, actively changing areas of mass loss were concentrated on the southeastern and northwestern coasts, with ice mass in the center of Greenland steadily increasing over the decade.

Concepts: Time, General relativity, Ice sheet, Greenland ice sheet, Space, Spacetime, Universe, Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment