Researchers at the University of Utah have discovered a new aquifer in the Greenland Ice Sheet that holds liquid water all year long in the otherwise perpetually frozen winter landscape. The aquifer is extensive, covering 27,000 square miles.
Evan Burgess, co-author
Drill rig used to extract firn cores from within the Greenland firn aquifer. One of the snowmobiles used in the 186 mile traverse of the ice sheet to reach the drill site.
The reservoir is known as a “perennial firn aquifer” because water persists within the firn – layers of snow and ice that don’t melt for at least one season. Researchers believe it figures significantly in understanding the contribution of snowmelt and ice melt to rising sea levels.
The study was published online Sunday, Dec. 22, in the journal Nature Geoscience.
“Of the current sea level rise, the Greenland Ice Sheet is the largest contributor – and it is melting at record levels,” says Rick Forster, lead author and professor of geography at the University of Utah. “So understanding the aquifer’s capacity to store water from year to year is important because it fills a major gap in the overall equation of meltwater runoff and sea levels.”
Forster’s team has been doing research in southeast Greenland since 2010 to measure snowfall accumulation and how it varies from year to year. The area they study covers 14 percent of southeast Greenland yet receives 32 percent of the entire ice sheet's snowfall, but there has been little data gathered.
In 2010, the team drilled core samples in three locations on the ice for analysis. Team members returned in 2011 to approximately the same area, but at lower elevation. Of the four core samples taken then, two came to the surface with liquid water pouring off the drill while the air temperatures were minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The water was found at about 33 feet below the surface at the first hole and at 82 feet in the second hole.
“This discovery was a surprise,” Forster says. “Although water discharge from streams in winter had been previously reported, and snow temperature data implied small amounts of water, no one had yet reported observing water in the firn that had persisted through the winter.”
The aquifer is extensive, covering 27,000 square miles -- larger than the state of West Virginia. It is similar in form to a groundwater aquifer on land that can be used for drinking water. “Here instead of the water being stored in the airspace between subsurface rock particles, the water is stored in the air space between the ice particles, like the juice in a snow cone,” Forster adds. “The surprising fact is the juice in this snow cone never freezes, even during the dark Greenland winter. Large amounts of snow fall on the surface late in the summer and quickly insulates the water from the subfreezing air temperatures above, allowing the water to persist all year long.”
Why Studying Ice in Greenland is Important
The Greenland Ice Sheet is vast, covering roughly the same area as the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah combined. The average thickness of the ice is 5,000 feet. In 2012, the ice sheet lost volume of 60 cubic miles – a record for melt and runoff.
The consequences of losing the ice sheet could be catastrophic. If all the water retained in the ice sheet melted, it is estimated that the global sea level would rise about 21 feet, says Forster. Although no one is predicting a total meltoff all at once, keeping an eye on ice formation, runoff amounts and how the water is moving is critical to accurately predicting sea level changes.
Until now, calculations of the ice sheet mass changes did not include a year-round storage mechanism for liquid water. Models predicted that water either flowed into rivers and lakes on the ice surface, into crevasses and subglacial streams that eventually run into the sea, or was refrozen within the ice sheet.
Discovery of the perennial aquifer will help scientists predict the movement and temperature of water within the ice sheet with more precision.
Forster says the reservoir’s exact role is unknown. “It might conserve meltwater flow and thus help slow down the effects of climate change. But it may also have the opposite effect, providing lubrication to moving glaciers and exacerbating ice velocity and calving increasing the mass of ice loss to the global ocean.”
As for whether climate change caused the aquifer to form, Forster says that’s not clear, but simulations of the Greenland Ice Sheet going back to the early 1970s would suggest it has been around for some time.
How the Study was Conducted
The previously unknown storage mode was found in the southeast section of Greenland, where conditions combine to provide sufficient rain and snowmelt to fill the firn with water, as well as high levels of snow accumulation that insulate the water from freezing during the winter.
The team used data collected by airborne and ground-penetrating radar to pinpoint the aquifer, and then took core samples on the ground.
Airborne radar imagery was collected in the area by NASA Operation IceBridge, which is a program directed at collecting images of Earth’s polar ice in unprecedented detail to better understand the processes that connect polar regions with climate change. Ground-penetrating radar and a roving Global Positioning System navigation unit also were towed across the ice in the same area via snowmobile, collecting data every five seconds.
Researchers found that the radar images from air and ground corresponded on both the depth of a bright horizon, indicating where there is a change in consistency of the ice, as well as the undulations of the horizon across distance of about 15 miles. This was confirmation that the airborne radar could map the aquifer just as well as the ground-based radar.
Core samples were taken with a 4-inch-diameter drill. Two segments were extracted that were saturated with liquid water – one from a depth of about 33 feet and another the following day about a mile east and at a depth of more than 80 feet.
Temperatures in the spring of 2011 were below average. Forster notes that, “because air temperatures were minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit during drilling and because surface melting in the area did not begin until June in 2011, there is no doubt that the water found in the firn had persisted through the winter.”
This research is an international collaboration among researchers at the University of Utah, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Byrd Polar Research Center at the Ohio State University, Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht, Utrecht University, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas, and the Desert Research Institute at the University of Nevada, Reno. Forster and the Utah team were supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA.After the embargo expires, this news release and photos may be downloaded here:
Video of water from the Greenland perennial firn aquifer draining from a core extracted 33 feet below the surface of the ice sheet. http://youtu.be/7VEpJpCvrbI
Before the embargo expires, media may use the case-sensitive password: Greenland
Richard R. Forster, professor of geography – office 801-581-8620, cell 801-450-3689, firstname.lastname@example.org
Valoree Dowell | Newswise
Greenland ice flow likely to speed up: New data assert glaciers move over sediment, which gets more slippery as it gets wetter
17.08.2017 | Swansea University
Climate change: In their old age, trees still accumulate large quantities of carbon
17.08.2017 | Universität Hamburg
Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.
As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...
Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.
Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...
For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.
While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...
An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.
The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...
A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...
16.08.2017 | Event News
04.08.2017 | Event News
26.07.2017 | Event News
18.08.2017 | Life Sciences
18.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
18.08.2017 | Materials Sciences