Greenland Glaciers — not so fast!

There have been several recent papers on ice sheets and sea level that have gotten a bit of press of the journalistic whiplash variety (“The ice is melting faster than we thought!” “No, its not!”). As usual the papers themselves are much better than the press about them, and the results less confusing. They add rich detail to our understanding of the ice sheets; they do not change estimates of the magnitude of future sea level rise.

One of these recent papers, by Hellmer et al., discusses possible mechanisms by which loss of ice from the great ice sheets may occur in the future. Hellmer et al.’s results suggest that retreat of the Ronne-Filchner ice shelf in the Weddell Sea (Antarctica) — an area that until recently has not received all that much attention from glaciologists — might correspond to an additional rise in global sea level of about 40 cm. That’s a lot, and it’s in addition to, the “worst case scenarios” often referred to — notably, that of Pfeffer et al., (2008), who did not consider the Ronne-Filchner. However, it’s also entirely model based (as such projections must be) and doesn’t really provide any information on likelihood — just on mechanisms.

Among the most important recent papers, in our view, is the one by Moon et al. in Science earlier this May (2012). The paper, with co-authors Ian Joughin (who won the Agassiz Medal at EGU this year), Ben Smith, and Ian Howat, provides a wonderful new set of data on Greenland’s glaciers. This is the first paper to provide data on *all* the outlet glaciers that drain the Greenland ice sheet into the sea.

The bottom line is that Greenland’s glaciers are still speeding up. But the results put speculation of monotonic or exponential increases in Greenland’s ice discharge to rest, an idea that some had raised after a doubling over a few years was reported in 2004 for Jakobshavn Isbræ (Greenland’s largest outlet glacier). Let it not be said that journals such as Science and Nature are only willing to publish papers that find that thing are “worse than we thought”! But neither does this new work contradict any of the previous estimates of future sea level rise, such as that of Vermeer and Rahmstorf. The reality is that the record is very short (just 10 years) and shows a complex time-dependent glacier response, from which one cannot deduce how the ice sheet will react in the long run to a major climatic warming, say over the next 50 or 100 years.

These new data provide an important baseline and they will remain important for many years to come. We asked Moon and Joughin to write a summary of their paper for us, which is reproduced below.

Guest Post by By Twila Moon and Ian Joughin, University of Washington

The sheer scale of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets pose significant difficulties for collecting data on the ground. Fortunately, satellites have brought in a new era of ice sheet research, allowing us to begin answering basic questions – how fast does the ice move? how quickly is it changing? where and how much melting and thinning is occurring? – on a comprehensive spatial scale. Our recent paper, “21st-century evolution of Greenland outlet glacier velocities”, published May 4th in Science, presented observations of velocity on all Greenland outlet glaciers – more than 200 glaciers – wider than 1.5km [Moon et al., 2012]. There are two primary conclusions in our study:

1) Glaciers in the northwest and southeast regions of the Greenland ice sheet, where ~80% of discharge occurs, sped up by ~30% from 2000 to 2010 (34% for the southeast, 28% for the northwest).

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