During the last decade, researchers have captured compelling evidence of accelerating ice flow at terminal regions, or "snouts," of Greenland glaciers as they flow into the ocean along the western coast. Now, the new research shows that the interior regions are also flowing much faster than they were in the winter of 2000-2001, and the study authors propose a reason for the speedup.
Meltwater from the surface of the Sermeq Avannarleq Glacier drains down toward interior ice (see falling droplets at right). This photograph depicts a region about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the ice sheet margin in Southwest Greenland. CREDIT: William Colgan/CIRES
"Through satellite observations, we determined that an inland region of the Sermeq Avannarleq Glacier, 40 to 60 miles from the coast, is flowing about 1.5 times faster than it was about a decade ago," said Thomas Phillips, lead author of the new paper and a research associate at the time of the study with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
In 2000-2001, the inland segment was flowing at about 40 meters (130 feet) per year; in 2007-2008, that speed was closer to 60 meters (200 feet) per year.
"At first, we couldn't explain this rapid interior acceleration," Phillips said. "We knew it wasn't related to what was going on at the glacier's terminus. The speedup had to be due to changes within the ice itself."
To shed light on the observed acceleration, Phillips and his team developed a new model to investigate the effects of meltwater on the ice sheet's physical properties. The team found that meltwater warms the ice sheet, which then—like a warm stick of butter—softens, deforms, and flows faster.
Previous studies estimated that it would take centuries to millennia for new climates to increase the temperature deep within ice sheets. But when the influence of meltwater is considered, warming can occur within decades and, thus, produce rapid accelerations. The paper has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
The researchers were tipped off to this mechanism by the massive amount of meltwater they observed on the ice sheet's surface during their summer field campaigns, and they wondered if it was affecting the ice sheet. During the last several decades, atmospheric warming above the Greenland Ice Sheet has caused an expanding area of the surface to melt during the summer, creating pools of water that gush down cracks in the ice. The meltwater eventually funnels to the interior and bed of the ice sheet.
As the meltwater drains through the ice, it carries with it heat from the sun.
"The sun melts ice into water at the surface, and that water then flows into the ice sheet carrying a tremendous amount of latent energy," said William Colgan, a coauthor and CIRES adjunct research associate. "The latent energy then heats the ice."
The new model shows that this speeds up ice flow in two major ways: One, the retained meltwater warms the bed of the ice sheet and preconditions it to accommodate a basal water layer, making it easier for the ice sheet to slide by lubrication. Two, warmer ice is also softer (less viscous), which makes it flow more readily.
"Basically, the gravitational force driving the ice sheet flow hasn't changed over time, but with the ice sheet becoming warmer and softer, that same gravitational force now makes the ice flow faster," Colgan said.
This transformation from stiff to soft only requires a little bit of extra heat from meltwater. "The model shows that a slight warming of the ice near the ice sheet bed—only a couple of degrees Celsius—is sufficient to explain the widespread acceleration," Colgan said.
The findings have important ramifications for ice sheets and glaciers everywhere. "It could imply that ice sheets can discharge ice into the ocean far more rapidly than currently estimated," Phillips said. "It also means that the glaciers are not finished accelerating and may continue to accelerate for a while. As the area experiencing melt expands inland, the acceleration may be observed farther inland."
The study's results suggest that to understand future sea-level rise, scientists need to account for a previously overlooked factor—meltwater's latent energy—and its potential role in making glaciers and ice sheets flow faster into the world's oceans. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote that one of the most significant challenges in predicting sea-level rise was "limited" understanding of the processes controlling ice flow. The IPCC's next assessment is due out in 2014.
"Traditionally, latent energy has been considered a relatively unimportant factor, but most glaciers are now receiving far more meltwater than they used to and are increasing in temperature faster than previously imagined," Colgan said. "The chunk of butter known as the Greenland Ice Sheet may be softening a lot faster than we previously thought possible."
The study was funded through a NASA ROSES grant, NASA's Greenland Climate Network, and the National Science Foundation. Other coauthors on the paper were CIRES Director Waleed Abdalati, former CIRES Director Konrad Steffen, and CU-Boulder Engineering Professor Harihar Rajaram.
Notes for Journalists
Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) of educational and scientific institutions who have registered with AGU can download a PDF copy of this accepted article by clicking on this link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jgrf.20079/abstract
Or, you may order a copy of the final paper by emailing your request to Peter Weiss at PWeiss@agu.org. Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number.Neither the paper nor this press release are under embargo.
Contact information for the authors:
Thomas Phillips, Thomas.Phillips@Colorado.EDU, +41 79 120 0858, Thomas.Phillips (Skype)
William Colgan, firstname.lastname@example.org, +45 38 14 29 30
Peter Weiss | American Geophysical Union
Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk
20.10.2016 | European Geosciences Union
UM researchers study vast carbon residue of ocean life
19.10.2016 | University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science
Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.
"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...
In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.
A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...
By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.
"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...
COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.
In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...
'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.
Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...
14.10.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
12.10.2016 | Event News
21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine
21.10.2016 | Information Technology
21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences