Submarine melting gives rise to sea levels by chewing away the Greenland Ice Sheet
Over the past two decades, ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet increased four-fold contributing to one-quarter of global sea level rise. However, the chain of events and physical processes that contributed to it has remained elusive. One likely trigger for the speed up and retreat of glaciers that contributed to this ice loss is ocean warming.
A review paper by physical oceanographers Fiamma Straneo at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Patrick Heimbach at MIT published in Nature explains what scientists have learned from their research on and around Greenland over the past 20 years and describes the measurements and technology needed to continue to move the science forward.
The Greenland Ice Sheet is a 1.7 million-square-kilometer, 2-mile thick layer of ice that covers Greenland. At its edge, glaciers that drain the ice sheet plunge into coastal fjords that are over 600 meters deep — thus exposing the ice sheet edges to contact with the ocean. The waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, which surround southern Greenland, are presently the warmest they have been in the past 100 years. This warming is due to natural climate variability and human induced climate change, and climate models project that it will keep getting warmer. Therefore, it is important to understand if the present ocean warming has contributed to ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet and how future warming may result in even more ice loss.
The paper describes the mechanisms causing the melting of the ice sheet, particularly at its margin, where the glaciers extend into the ocean. This so-called "submarine melting" has increased as the ocean and atmosphere have warmed over the past two decades.
"What a lot of research around Greenland and the fjords has shown is that if the North Atlantic Ocean warms, then these warm waters will rapidly reach the fjords and hence the margins of Greenland's glaciers," says Straneo.
But scientists today know that the situation is more complex than just "a warmer ocean melts ice."
A warmer atmosphere is resulting in increased surface melting above the ice sheet, and this runoff too enhances submarine melting. Surface melt water falls through cracks in the glacier creating a freshwater river that rushes out into the ocean at the base of the glacier, sometimes 600 meters (1,800 feet) below sea level. This river mixes rapidly with the dense, salty seawater, contributing to the heat transfer from the ocean to the ice, resulting in even more submarine melting beneath the sea surface.
Continue reading at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Greenland Ice Sheet image via Shutterstock.