The Greenland melt

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.

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 ‰.

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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.