Master’s student Karina Hansen appeared at the door to my office at GEUS: “something looks strange” at Spalte Glacier connected to the 79 Glacier far northeastern Greenland.
In Danish, Spalte means “split” or “crevassed”.
The ~9 km wide Spalte Glacier is a tributary of the 79 Glacier which today has the Arctic’s largest ice shelf. The ice shelf forms the end of the North East Greenland Ice Stream, the only Greenland ice stream clearly reaching the highest elevations.
2016 aerial of ‘the new rift’ from Nat J. Wilson
7 Sept Sentinel 2 image from Jens Jacobsen of DMI’s Greenland Ice Service
We observed that between 14 Aug., 2015 and 3 September 2016, a marine-terminating tributary of the 79 fjord glacier, the Spalte Glacier flowing into Dijmphna Sound has detached and area (more than 95 km2) roughly the area of Manhattan Is.
The detachment of the ice shelf fragment appears to be nearly 100% complete.
The floating ice shelf fragment appears to have split into more than one piece already. But the main fragment have not floated away yet. I expect that will happen this year or next.
The fracturing and detachment is partly due to glacier dynamics (flow, stress, strain, pre-existing fractures).
Whether the ice shelf detaching is the consequence of the record warm ‘summer’ (June through August) observed at the DMI Danmarkshavn meteorological station (332 km to the south) is an obvious question.
Using Danish Meteorological Institute air temperature data c/o John Cappelen, the absolute summer temperature at Danmarkshavn was +4.9 C, producing a +2.3 C anomaly from the 1981-2010 “normal” period having temperature +2.6 C.
At Station Nord (220 km to the north) July temperatures were +1.9 C above the 1981-2010 period. Absolute July temperature at Station Nord was +5.9 C, producing a +1.9 C anomaly from the 1981-2010 ‘normal’ period having temperature +4.0 C). The Station Nord summer average temperature was +3.1. Normal is +2.3. So the Station Nord summer temperature anomaly was +0.8 C.
With a few exceptions, marine terminating outlets of the Greenland ice sheet have been retreating in recent decades. Box and Hansen (2015) surveyed 45 of the widest Greenland glaciers, which between 1999 and 2015 collectively lost an area of 1799 square km.
A Clear Statistical Pattern
Summer air temperature records at all 11 Danish Meteorological Institute stations around Greenland are correlated with glacier front area change… in warm summers, more ice area is lost. At 4 of the 11 sites, the confidence in that correlation is above 95%. At 7 of the 11 sites, the confidence in that correlation is above 80% (Box and Hansen, 2015). The physical mechanisms at work are probably hydrofracture in which the weight of water, being more than ice, adds force that can disaggregate ice (e.g. Weertman, 1973; Van der Veen, 1998) and forced convection driving more heat exchange between the (overall warming) ocean and the ice underbelly.
USGS Landsat 8 image sequences below prepared by Karina Hansen and myself.
In August 2010, the longest ice shelf connected to the Greenland ice sheet at Petermann Glacier (also then the Arctic’s largest ice shelf) calved 245 km2. Petermann ice shelf disintegration continued with a 140 km2 calving in 2012 (Jensen et al. 2015). The largest and most consistent (year to year) changes in Greenland glacier area are concentrated in the north of the island (Howat and Eddy, 2011; Box and Decker, 2011). The largest Greenland and Arctic ice shelf is now at the front of the North East Greenland Ice Stream.
Box, J.E. and D.T. Decker, 2011: Greenland marine-terminating glacier area changes: 2000–2010, Annals of Glaciology, 52(59) 91-98.
Box, J.E. and K. Hansen, 2015. Survey of Greenland glacier area changes, PROMICE newsletter 8, december 2015, http://promice.org/Newsletter_08.pdf
Jensen, T., J.E. Box, and C.S. Hvidberg, 2016. A sensitivity study of annual area change for Greenland ice sheet marine terminating outlet glaciers: 1999–2013. Journal of Glaciology, 2016 doi:10.1017/ jog.2016.12
Howat, I.M. and A. Eddy. 2011. Multidecadal retreat of Greenland’s marine-terminating glaciers. J. Glaciol., 57(203), 389–396.
Van der Veen, C. J., 1998: Fracture mechanics approach to penetration of surface crevasses on glaciers. Cold Reg. Sci. Technol., 27, 31–47.
Weertman, J., 1973: Can a water-filled crevasse reach the bottom surface of a glacier? IAHS Publ., 95, 139–145.
Our new study reveals that under warm and wet conditions, atmospheric heat can melt the lower 1/3 of the Greenland ice sheet elevations more than under sunny conditions. This was especially so during the 2012 heat wave when a record warm North America loaded the air with heat and moisture that drifted to Greenland.
We recorded the largest ever observed daily and annual surface melt rates on Greenland under PROMICE. The 8-11 July, 2012 heat wave produced 0.9 m (3 ft) of ice melt for a yearly total of 8.5 m (28 ft), actually 9% less than the 2010 annual value of 9.2 m (30 ft). The peak daily melt rate was 0.28 m (11 inches) occurred on 11 July. To capture such high melt rates, we use a 12.4 m (40 ft) long ruler.
A persistent air flow that drove air up and over west Greenland prevailed for 6 summers (2007 to 2012), parts of 2015, and in other years. This is the same kind of “atmospheric river” that can replenish California’s moisture deficit and cause flooding. In the case of Greenland, if it’s summer and air temperatures are high enough, there will be no snow, just rain and atmospheric heat delivered to the ice surface can do untold damage to the surface.
The study decomposes the ice melt energy into contributions. Together, atmospheric heat and condensation delivered more energy to the lower elevations of the ice sheet than absorbed sunlight during pulses in July and August 2012. It’s counterintuitive that under cloudy conditions there can be more melting, especially because the surface is so dark in this lower 1/3 of the ice sheet elevations. It goes to show that the ice sheet melt does not get a break just because the sun is blocked.
Climate models under-represent this effect, by our estimate by a factor of two, and with the frequency of warmer air masses driven over Greenland expected to increase with climate change (Collins et al., 2013), the impact of atmospheric heat and condensation will probably bring Greenland ice melt loss faster than forecast.
Collins, M., R. Knutti, J. Arblaster, J.L. Dufresne, T. Fichefet, P. Friedlingstein, X. Gao, W.J. Gutowski, T. Johns, G. Krinner, M. Shongwe, C. Tebaldi, A.J. Weaver, and M. Wehner, (2013), Long-term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
Fausto, R. S., D. van As, J. E. Box, W. Colgan, P. L. Langen, and R. H. Mottram (2016),The implication of nonradiative energy fluxes dominating Greenland ice sheet exceptional ablation area surface melt in 2012,Geophys. Res. Lett., 43, doi:10.1002/2016GL067720.