Lubricating meltwater that makes its way from the surface down to where a glacier meets bedrock turns out to be only a minor reason why Greenland’s outlet glaciers accelerated their race to the sea 50 to 100 percent in the 1990s and early 2000s, according to University of Washington’s Ian Joughin and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Sarah Das. The two are lead co-authors of two papers posted this week on Science magazine’s Science Express.
The report also shows that surface meltwater is reaching bedrock farther inland under the Greenland Ice Sheet, something scientists had speculated was happening but had little evidence.
“Considered together, the new findings indicate that while surface melt plays a substantial role in ice sheet dynamics, it may not produce large instabilities leading to sea level rise,” says Joughin, a glaciologist with the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Joughin goes on to stress that “there are still other mechanisms that are contributing to the current ice loss and likely will increase this loss as climate warms.”
Outlet glaciers are rapid flows of ice that start in the Greenland Ice Sheet and extend all the way to the ocean, where their fronts break apart in the water as icebergs, a process called calving. While most of the ice sheet moves less than one tenth a mile a year, some outlet glaciers gallop along at 7.5 miles a year, making outlet glaciers a concern because of their more immediate potential to cause sea level rise.
If surface meltwater lubrication at the intersection of ice and bedrock was playing a major role in speeding up the outlet glaciers, one could imagine how global warming, which would create ever more meltwater at the surface, could cause Greenland’s ice to shrink much more rapidly than expected — even catastrophically. Glacial ice is second only to the oceans as the largest reservoir of water on the planet and 10 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice is found in Greenland.
It turns out, however, that when considered over an entire year, surface meltwater was responsible for only a few percent of the movement of the six outlet glaciers monitored, says Joughin, lead author of “Seasonal Speedup along the Western Flank of the Greenland Ice Sheet.” Even in the summer it appears to contribute at most 15 percent, and often considerably less, to the total annual movement of these fast-moving outlet glaciers.
Calculations were made both by digitally comparing pairs of images acquired at different times from the Canadian RADARSAT satellite and by ground-based GPS measurements in a project funded by the National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
But while surface meltwater plays an inconsequential role in the movement of outlet glaciers, meltwater is responsible for 50 to 100 percent of the summer speed up for the large stretches near the edge of the ice sheet where there are no major outlet glaciers, a finding consistent with, but somewhat larger than, earlier observations.
“What Joughin, Das and their co-authors confirm is that iceflow speed up with meltwater is a widespread occurrence, not restricted to the one site where previously observed. But, they also show that the really fast-moving ice doesn’t speed up very much with this. So we can expect the ice sheet in a warming world to shrink somewhat faster than previously expected, but this mechanism will not cause greatly faster shrinkage,” says Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, who is not connected with the papers.
So what’s behind the speed up of Greenland’s outlet glaciers? Joughin says he thinks what’s considerably more significant is when outlet glaciers lose large areas of ice at their seaward ends through increased calving, which may be affected by warmer temperatures. He’s studied glaciers such as Jakobshavn Isbrae, one of Greenland’s fastest-moving glaciers, and says that as ice calves and icebergs float away it is like removing a dam, allowing ice farther uphill to stream through to the ocean more quickly. At present, iceberg calving accounts for approximately 50 percent of the ice loss of Greenland, much of which is balanced by snowfall each winter. Several other studies recently have shown that the loss from calving is increasing, contributing at present rates to a rise in sea level of 1 to 2 inches per century.
“We don’t yet know what warming temperatures means for increased calving of icebergs from the fronts of these outlet glaciers,” Joughin says.
Until now scientists have only speculated if, and how, surface meltwater might make it to bedrock from high atop the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is a half-mile or more thick in places. The paper “Fracture Propagation to the Base of the Greenland Ice Sheet During Supraglacial Lake Drainage,” with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s glaciologist Das as lead author, presents evidence of how a lake that disappeared from the surface of the inland ice sheet generated so much pressure and cracking that the water made it to bedrock in spite of more than half a mile of ice.
The glacial lake described in the paper was 2 to 2 ½ miles at its widest point and 40 feet deep. Researchers installed monitoring instruments and, 10 days after leaving the area, a large fracture developed, a crack spanning nearly the full length of the lake. The lake drained in 90 minutes with a fury comparable to that of Niagara Falls. (The researchers were ever so glad they hadn’t been on the lake in their 10-foot boat with its 5-horsepower engine and don’t plan future instrument deployments when the lakes are full of water. They’ll get them in place only when the lakes are dry.)
Measurements after the event suggest there’s an efficient drainage system under the ice sheet that dispersed the meltwater widely. The draining of multiple lakes each could explain the observed net regional summer ice speedup, the authors write.
Along with Das and Joughin other authors on the two papers are Matt King, Newcastle University, UK; Ben Smith, Ian Howat (now at Ohio State) and Twila Moon of the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory; Mark Behn and Dan Lizarralde of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; and Maya Bhatia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology/WHOI Joint Program.