Ground slows glacier ice loss

EMBARGOED until 2301 GMT on Sunday 12 May

One of the valley walls of the Petermann glacier in northern Greenland Image: NASA/Michael Studinger

One of the valley walls of the Petermann glacier in northern Greenland
Image: NASA/Michael Studinger

By Kieran Cooke

New understanding of some of Greenland’s major glaciers suggests they may not melt in the future nearly as fast as they are doing now.

LONDON, 13 May – Scientists tread very carefully when it comes to glaciers. While the consensus is that glaciers around the world are generally in retreat, there are the exceptions:

in the west of the Himalayas some glaciers have been found to be growing, not shrinking. In Antarctica some glaciers are gaining mass balance while others are losing it. Meanwhile glaciers in other parts of the world, particularly in the Andes,  are disappearing at an ever increasing rate.

The impact of climate change on the Greenland ice sheet has been well documented: Arctic temperatures are rising at levels well above the global average, and ice-loss has been accelerating.

This has raised concerns that these constantly increasing rates of ice loss will lead to a rise in sea levels that could threaten coastal communities around the world. Yet the future contribution of Greenland’s glaciers to sea-level rise is uncertain.

A new study published in the journal Nature questions whether present trends of ice loss on the Greenland ice sheet will be maintained.

The report – Future Sea-level Rise from Greenland’s Major Outlet Glaciers in a Warming Climate – looks at the behaviour of the four major fast flowing glaciers in Greenland. The Petermann, Kangerdlugssuaq, Helheim and Jakobshavn glaciers together drain about 22% of the island’s ice sheet.

Lower loss expected


By building up a computer model of these four glaciers, scientists have revealed that the shape of the ground beneath the ice has a marked impact on the way the ice moves, with the rate at which the glaciers are losing ice depending critically on the shape of the fjords in which they sit and the topography of the rock below them.

In turn, this has led the scientists to doubt whether present rates of ice loss and the “calving” of icebergs from the glaciers will be maintained.

“…While these glaciers may show several bursts of retreat and periods of high iceberg formation in future, the rapid acceleration seen in recent years is unlikely to continue unchecked”, says the report.

The computer model suggests that, because of the influence of various topographical features, the projected sea level rise from ice loss of these four glaciers will be of the order of between 2cm and 5cm by 2200 – considerably lower than previous estimates which have been based solely on the extrapolation of current trends.

However, the rate of  calculated ice loss will still be considerable: the model predicts that the combined ice loss of the four will amount to between 30 gigatonnes (Gt) and 47Gt per year over the present century. One Gt of ice is equivalent to one cubic kilometre of water. By way of comparison, Lake Geneva contains 90Gt of water.

More clarity needed


“I am excited by the way we have managed to create a detailed picture of the workings of the glaciers”, says Dr Faezeh Nick, of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, lead author of the study.

“It turns out that if the fjord a glacier sits in is wide or narrow, it really affects the way the glacier reacts. The important role of the terrain below the ice shows we need to get a much clearer picture of the rest of Greenland’s glaciers before we have the whole story.”

Work on the modelling of the glaciers was carried out under the EU-funded Ice2sea programme which links scientific expertise among 24 institutions in Europe and elsewhere.

Professor David Vaughan, head of the programme, told Climate News Network that though there were various ways of analysing the behaviour of glaciers, the new computer modelling could be vital in assessing future levels of ice loss.

“The key point is that we actually need to know about the land beneath the ice if we are going to come up with really good projections on future ice loss and the contribution to sea level rise of these glaciers. This computer modelling could be a big step forward and adds to our understanding of how glaciers behave.” – Climate News Network