The Greenland Ice

by Rasmus Benestad, Eric Steig and Gavin Schmidt

In a recent paper in Science, Eric Rignot and Pannir Kanagaratnam present new satellite observations of the speed of glaciers of Greenland, and find that they are sliding towards the sea almost twice as fast as previously thought. Additionally, between 1996 and 2005, they detected a widespread glacier acceleration and consequently an increased rate of ice discharge from the Greenland ice sheet. However, previous papers have recently noted an increase in snow accumulation in the interior (i.e. Johannessen et al., 2005), so how do these different measurements fit into the larger picture of Greenland’s net mass balance?

2004/150 - 05/29 at 14 :25 UTC Southern Greenland Satellite: Terra The measurements by Rignot and Kanagartnam were made with interferometers which measure the movement of the surface horizontally, and so is complimentary to the altimeter data published previously (which measures the absolute height of the ice). Overall, they found widespread increases in glacier speeds, and increases of about 30% in ice discharge rates. (Note that the satellite image shows that the glaciers in the east tend to slide far into the sea whereas on the western coast that happens less).

The higher velocity of the ice is thought to be related to higher temperatures causing increased melt-water which can penetrate to the base of the glacier and hence reduce the ground friction. However, this accelerated movement is not necessarily tied to an increased rate of melting of the Greenland ice, although it can be related. Surges of ice streams from the ice sheet can also occur due to increased accumulation at the head of the glacier. However, when the increased ice velocity is matched to a decreasing thickness that can be sign of net mass loss. These ideas are consistent with observations of surface melting which had a record extent in 2005, and has been increasing steadily (though with significant interannual variability) since 1993. Using the analysis of Hanna et al (2005) (based on the reanalysis datasets) for the surface mass balance, Rignot & Kanagartnam estimate that Greenland is on balance losing mass, and over the period of their study the ice sheet mass deficit (the amount of ice lost to the sea) has doubled increasing from 90 to 220 km3/year (an increase of 0.23 to 0.57 mm/yr sea level equivalent – SLE).

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