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Greenland's Glacial Melt May Slow, Study Suggests

greenland glaciers, melting glaciers, greenland ice melt, sea-level rise
Water-filled surface crevasses on Greenland outlet glaciers. Every summer surface meltwater enters in the surface crevasses and forces the crevasses to penetrate deeper, which eventually results in higher calving rate. (Image credit: Dirk van AS)

Greenland's galloping glaciers will likely slow their rapid retreat in the coming century, scientists project based on a new computer modeling study.

In the study, published today (May 8) in the journal Nature, researchers resolve one of the biggest uncertainties about Greenland's future contributions to sea-level rise: the behavior of its outlet glaciers. These massive ice rivers drain to the ocean, adding both surface runoff water and icebergs to the sea. The researchers discovered that Greenland's outlet glaciers retreat in episodic pulses, which account for the past 10 years of dramatic ice loss.

"We now have a good estimate of what's going to happen in the next 100 years," said lead study author Faezeh Nick, a glaciologist at The University Centre in Svalbard, Norway.

According to the model, which looked at four swiftly shrinking outlet glaciers, today's breakneck retreat will soon hit the brakes, thanks to natural processes like narrow fjords that choke glacial retreat and increased iceberg production that cools warm ocean water. But that doesn't mean Greenland's overall ice loss will stop, Nick warns. [Image Gallery: Greenland's Melting Glaciers]

"It's very important to know that these glaciers respond to warming scenarios," Nick told OurAmazingPlanet. "Now we know for sure that the warmer atmosphere and ocean will result in further mass loss. But just looking at the changes from the last 10 years and extrapolating them is wrong," she said. "It's not science."

Modeling the melt

The study predicts that outlet glaciers will add 0.74 to 1.2 inches (19 to 30 millimeters) to sea-level rise by 2200 with 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8 degrees Celsius) of warming, a modest scenario. With a more extreme warming estimate of 8.1 Fahrenheit (4.5 Celsius) by 2100, the loss would rise by 50 percent, to 1.2 to 1.9 inches (29 to 49 mm) by 2200.

Capped with a thick cladding of ice, Greenland holds enough water to raise sea levels by 22 feet (7 meters). 

In recent decades, the rate of ice loss in Greenland has accelerated, raising fears of irreversible melting and rapid sea-level rise. In August 2012, the Greenland Ice Sheet shattered a 30-year seasonal record.

One 2008 study, a worst-case scenario, suggested Greenland's retreating glaciers could contribute up to 19 inches (48 centimeters) of sea-level rise by 2100. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change omitted outlet glaciers from its sea-level-rise projections due to the difficulty of modeling the glaciers’ behavior. The new study is the first to model and predict sea-level rise from the dynamic behavior of outlet glaciers, Nick said.

Choke points

The researchers took a close look at four swiftly shrinking outlet glaciers, all of which drain to the ocean: Jakobshavn in western Greenland, Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq glaciers in southeastern Greenland, and Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland.

The team modeled complex factors governing how the massive ice rivers respond to climate change — including warmer ocean and air temperatures, the sea ice damming the glacier's fronts, where icebergs calve, and the shape of their rock walls. Even the size and shape of crevasses (deep cracks in the ice) must be considered.

The model finds that mass loss (surface melt and iceberg calving) will plateau after the initial increase in the early 21st century. The unique width and depth of each glacier's fjord (a steep, U-shaped valley) largely controls how they respond to warming, which may explain the large degree of variability seen in melting today, the researchers found.

"If a glacier goes into a narrow part of a fjord, it just hangs there and stops [retreating]," Nick said. "But if the climate gets warmer, it can pass through that narrow part and melt anyway."

Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @OAPlanet, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience's OurAmazingPlanet.

Becky Oskin
Contributing Writer
Becky Oskin covers Earth science, climate change and space, as well as general science topics. Becky was a science reporter at Live Science and The Pasadena Star-News; she has freelanced for New Scientist and the American Institute of Physics. She earned a master's degree in geology from Caltech, a bachelor's degree from Washington State University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.