Greenland Glaciers — not so fast!

2) On a local scale, there is notable variability in glacier speeds, with even neighboring glaciers exhibiting different annual velocity patterns.

There are a few points on our research that may be easy to misinterpret, so we’re taking this opportunity to provide some additional details and explanation.

Melt and Velocity

The Greenland ice sheet changes mass through two primary methods: 1) loss or gain of ice through melt or precipitation (surface mass balance) and 2) loss of ice through calving of icebergs (discharge) (Figure 1) [van den Broeke et al., 2009]. It is not uncommon for people to confuse discharge and melting. Our measurements from Greenland, which are often referred to in the context of “melt”, are actually observations of velocity, and thus relate to discharge, not in situ melting.

Figure 1. Components of surface mass balance and discharge. Most components can change in both negative (e.g., thinning) and positive directions (e.g., thickening).

When glaciologists refer to “increased melt” they are usually referring to melt that occurs on the ice sheet’s top surface (i.e., surface mass balance). Surface melt largely is confined to the lower-elevation edge of the ice sheet, where air temperature and solar radiation can melt up to several meters of ice each year during summer. Melt extent depends on air temperatures which tend to be greatest at more southerly latitudes. Meltwater pools in lakes and crevasses, often finding a path to drain through and under the ice sheet to the ocean. Glaciologists and oceanographers have found evidence for notable melt where the ice contacts ocean water [Straneo et al., 2010]. So, when you hear about ice sheet “melt”, think surface lakes and streams and melting at the ends of the glaciers where they meet the ocean.

So, why focus on velocity instead of melt? Velocity is more closely related to the discharge of ice to the ocean in the process of which icebergs break off, which float away to melt somewhere else potentially far removed from the ice sheet. You can picture outlet glaciers as large conveyor belts of ice, moving ice from the interior of the ice sheet out to the ocean. Our velocity measurements help indicate how quickly these conveyor belts are moving ice toward the ocean. Given climate change projections of continued warming for the Greenland ice sheet [IPCC, 2007], it’s important to understand at what speeds Greenland glaciers flow and how they change. On the whole, the measurements thus far indicate overall speedup. It turns out that on any individual glacier, however, the flow may undergo large changes on an annual basis, including both speeding up and slowing down. With these detailed measurements of glacier velocity, we can continue to work toward a better understanding of what primary factors control glacier velocity. Answers to this latter question will ultimately help us predict the ice sheet’s future behavior in a changing climate.

Sea Level Rise

Translating velocity change into changes in sea level rise is not a straightforward task. Sea level change reflects the total mass of ice lost (or gained) from the ice sheet. Determining this quantity requires measurements of velocity, thickness, width, advance/retreat (i.e., terminus position), and density – or, in some cases, an entirely different approach, such as measuring gravity changes.

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