The Greenland melt

The findings are spectacular. In the Eemian ice, there is clear evidence of significant melting of what would then have been snow at the surface. The amount of air trapped in the ice undergoes rapid fluctuations, resulting from the fact that ice that melts and then refreezes generally winds up with fewer air bubbles in it than the original porous snow. There are also strong fluctuations observed in soluble gases such as N2O whereas variations in the oxygen isotope concentration — both in the molecular oxygen (O2) in the air and in the ice (H2O) itself — are small. The isotope concentration of the O2 can be matched to that in undisturbed ice from the same time period in ice cores from Antarctica, providing a way to date the ice, showing unambiguously that non-disturbed layers are preserved from the peak of the Eemian period, about 125,000 years ago.

Qualitatively, the evidence for melt in the NEEM Eemian ice shows that it was warm at the time. Obviously. But more interestingly, the last year of the NEEM project was 2012, and researchers were able to witness first hand what the formation of melt layers mean at NEEM in terms of the ambient conditions. In July 2012, the NEEM saw above-freezing temperatures for six consecutive days (10 to 15 July), with rain events on 11 and 13 July. When the water refroze, it formed several distinct, clear layers of ice (which we call a “melt layers”) between 5 and about 60 cm down in the snow, about 1 cm thick. This is a rare event. It was so warm over Greenland in that week that a significant melt layer also formed up at the Summit; in fact, the entire surface of the ice sheet was melting.

That hasn’t happened — not once — in the entire satellite record (see Jason Box’s excellent blog, for more on this, and Marco Tedesco's paper.). In fact, examination of melt layer records from ice cores at Summit shows that a melt layer like the one that formed in 2012 was the most significant Greenland melt event since at least the late 19th century. If you drill about 100 m down into the ice and recover an ice core, you invariably find that layer, shown in the photo below (the bright line at which the person’s thumb is pointing).

.Greenland ice core from ~80 m depth. E. Steig photo.

According to a recent paper on the 2012 melt by Nghiem et al., in Geophysical Research Letters, the 19th century event dates to 1889. One has to go back about 700 years to find the next such event, and overall, these are about once-in-250 year events over the last 4000 years. Prior to that, they occur more frequently — about once per century during the mid Holocene “climatic optimum”, when it was on average much warmer than present in Greenland in summer, due to the peak in Northern Hemisphere insolation due to changes in the earth’s orbit (Milankovitch forcing). Even during the mid-Holocene, though, there is no evidence from the ice cores that there was sufficient melting to create such strong anomalies in the air content and trace gas concentrations in the ice, as was observed in the Eemian in the NEEM ice. Thus, it was even warmer during Eemian than during the mid Holocene.

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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.