The Greenland melt

How much warmer was it? Jason Box estimates from satellite data that the temperature in July 2012 at high elevations over the Greenland ice sheet was a full 10°C (18°F) warmer than the daily average of the 2000′s decade; 1 standard deviation is about 3°C, so this is about a 3-sigma event. If, as the NEEM researchers estimate, the same sort of temperatures were required to produce the EEM melt layers, it suggests that during the EEM in Greenland it was also about 10°C warmer than present in the summer — but not just once per century, but much more often, perhaps every summer. I’m interpreting a bit here: the NEEM group doesn’t actually use the presence of melt layers per se to estimate the summer temperature; rather, they use the observation that the δ18O values of the ice at this time are >>-33 ‰. δ18O is a proxy for temperature in Greenland ice, and the NEEM paper uses this to estimate that the temperature must have been about 8°C (+/-4°C) warmer than present. Not coincidentally, the δ18O values of the snow and rain that fell in July 2012 was also >-33 ‰.

None of this should be interpreted to suggest that we are in “Eemian-like” conditions just yet. After all, there has only been one Eemian-like melt event observed in modern times, and the extremely warm summer of 2012 clearly involved anomalous weather conditions — a particular pattern of pressure anomalies over the northern high latitudes (e.g. Tedesco et al. (2012)) that may also partly account for the exceptional low sea ice cover that year. The 2012 event, however, gives us a flavor of what the future is likely to bring. It will be very interesting to watch the satellite imagery over Greenland in the next decade and beyond.

What are the implications for the Greenland ice sheet? Possibly, that it is less sensitive to climate warming than some of the higher-end estimates suggest (e.g. Cuffey and Marshall (2000) suggested Greenland could have contributed > ~4 m to EEM sea level), though very much in line with more recent estimates (e.g. Pfeffer et al. (2008)). The estimated temperature change of ~8°C is quite a bit warmer than most previous estimates which are more in the range of 2-5°C (though the uncertainty estimates clearly overlap). Thus, whatever the contribution of mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet to the huge (4-8 m) rise in sea level of the Eemian, it occurred under very strong temperature forcing.

The presence of Eemian ice at the NEEM site itself places constraints on the ice sheet configuration. It obviously rules out any configuration in which this area of the Greenland ice sheet was gone. That typically occurs in ice-sheet model simulations that involve more than about 2 m of sea-level-equivalent mass loss. Thus, the NEEM ice core record suggests both that temperatures may have been warmer than once thought, and and that the ice sheet mass loss was unlikely to have been >2 m of sea level.

The new data from the NEEM ice core may also point to a lower limit on the magnitude of the Eemian sea level contribution from Greenland. Evidently, it can become very warm indeed over Greenland — much warmer than most previous modeling exercises have considered. Combined climate/ice sheet model estimates in which the Greenland surface temperature was as high during the Eemian as indicated by the NEEM ice core record suggest that loss of less than about 1 m sea level equivalent is very unlikely (e.g. Robinson et al. (2011).

There are caveats of course — the new data is just from one site, and estimates of the total ice loss don’t provide information about the rate at which that loss occurred. Still the new data show that Greenland, while evidently contributing significantly to Eemian sea level, cannot have contributed more than half the total — despite the strong forcing. This once again points to Antarctica as the major source of Eemian sea level rise. There are only about 3 m of sea level rise available from West Antarctica, and it remains unclear whether all of West Antarctica may have collapsed. On that subject, look for some more exciting ice core news in the near future, from a core at Roosevelt Island by a New Zealand led team.

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  1. M. Tedesco, X. Fettweis, T. Mote, J. Wahr, P. Alexander, J. Box, and B. Wouters, "Evidence and analysis of 2012 Greenland records from spaceborne observations, a regional climate model and reanalysis data", The Cryosphere Discussions, vol. 6, pp. 4939-4976, 2012.
  2. K.M. Cuffey, and S.J. Marshall, "", Nature, vol. 404, pp. 591-594, 2000.
  3. W.T. Pfeffer, J.T. Harper, and S. O'Neel, "Kinematic Constraints on Glacier Contributions to 21st-Century Sea-Level Rise", Science, vol. 321, pp. 1340-1343, 2008.
  4. A. Robinson, R. Calov, and A. Ganopolski, "Greenland ice sheet model parameters constrained using simulations of the Eemian Interglacial", Climate of the Past, vol. 7, pp. 381-396, 2011.