Ocean forcing drives glacier retreat in Greenland

by M. Wood et al., Jan 01, 2021 in AAAS OPEN ACCESS


The Greenland Ice Sheet has contributed substantially to sea-level rise over the past few decades. Since 1972, approximately two-thirds of the ice sheet’s contribution to sea-level rise resulted from increased glacier flux with the remaining one-third from anomalous surface melt (1). Before 2000, anomalous ice discharge was the dominant driver of mass loss, but in recent years, increasingly negative surface mass balance anomalies have contributed to a larger proportion of the total mass loss from the ice sheet (1). The acceleration in mass flux has been partially attributed to a warming of subsurface waters around Greenland near the end of the 1990s (2, 3) and increased runoff, resulting in enhanced water mixing and melt at glacier margins, destabilization of terminus regions (4, 5), ice front retreat (6, 7), and, in most cases, accelerated ice flow (8). The increase in flow speed, combined with enhanced surface melt, results in increased glacier thinning, which is conducive to further retreat (9). Other processes may have additionally contributed to the glacier retreat, e.g., increases in basal lubrication, melting of the ice mélange in front of glaciers, or weakening of glacier shear margins, but quantitative evidence about their impact has been limited (1012).

The warming of subsurface waters at the turn of the 21st century was caused by the spreading of ocean heat from the subpolar gyre during a transition in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) from a high positive phase to a low-to-negative phase (3). In this shift, the North Atlantic subpolar gyre expanded, enhancing ocean heat fluxes through the coastal Irminger and West Greenland currents, yielding warmer subsurface waters on the continental shelf of all seven major basins of Greenland (Fig. 1). Since 2010, the NAO has transitioned back to a more positive phase, yielding a relative cooling of the ocean waters, however, not sufficiently to bring back ocean heat fluxes to the levels of the 1990s (13).