Incredible Time-Lapse Video Shows Giant Greenland Lake Disappearing Within Hours

The Greenland Ice Sheet may be even more unstable than scientists previously thought, according to new research that reveals how lakes on the surface of Greenland's glaciers drain toward the bottom of the ice sheet within hours.

An impressive new time-lapse video shows one of these vanishing acts on Store Glacier in western Greenland. In July 2018, the lake lost two-thirds of its volume in a mere 5 hours, gushing out the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Even after the lake finished draining, the fracture that emptied it remained, leaving an easy conduit from the surface of the glacier to its base just over a half-mile (1 kilometer) below.

"Every year, there are many hundreds of large waterfalls providing water, but also large quantities of energy, down to the base of the ice sheet," said Poul Christoffersen, a glaciologist at the University of Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute. This water lubricates the bottom of the ice sheet, hastening its movement toward the sea, where it can contribute to sea level rise.

Related: Images: Greenland's Gorgeous Glaciers

Expanding lakes

Canyon cut by meltwater stream, before sinking into moulin beside hikers, on icecap above Disko Bay on the west coast, Greenland.

After draining, lakes leave behind holes called moulins, which allow meltwater to continue to travel to the bottom of the ice sheet. (Image credit: Tony Waltham/robertharding via Getty Images)

Since satellite observation of the island began in the 1970s, the number of meltwater lakes dotting Greenland's ice has risen. These seasonal lakes have also started growing larger, and appearing at higher elevations, than in the past. These trends are linked with a general warming trend in Greenland, which has been experiencing high rates of melt as the globe warms

Meltwater lakes are a part of this story, but they've been underestimated, Christoffersen told Live Science. Between a quarter and almost a half of these lakes experience rapid draining that sends their water deep into the ice, but satellite observations don't capture these draining events very precisely. Researchers have also tended to see the lake losses as local phenomena, Christoffersen said, not events that affect the larger movements of the ice sheet.

But Christoffersen and his team have evidence that suggests these lakes do matter — a lot. In May 2018, the researchers published a paper in the journal Nature Communications revealing that lakes tend to drain in clusters. The drainage of one lake can cause the ice surface to crack and fracture further, triggering other lakes to drain as well. The fractures left behind also act as conduits for further meltwater drainage, creating kilometer-tall waterfalls plunging into the ice.

"You actually have quite a big effect," Christoffersen said. 

Vanishing act

On July 7, 2018, Christoffersen and his team were camped out near a meltwater lake called Lake 028 on Store Glacier when they noticed that the lake level was dropping fast.

"We could see a fracture that formed in the ice, and water was gushing into this fracture as it opened up," Christoffersen said.

Luckily, Scott Polar Research Institute doctoral candidate Thomas Chudley was at the scene with an aerial drone he'd been using to capture imagery of the glacial surface close-up. Chudley flew the drone over the lake at regular intervals as it drained, securing a detailed look at how the drainage occurred. The researchers published their findings Dec. 2 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One major lesson from the loss of Lake 028 was that though the lake didn't disappear completely, it still drained rapidly toward the base of the ice sheet, Christoffersen said. In satellite studies, researchers have largely ignored partial lake drainages, he said; the assumption has been that partial drainages occur when lake water flows out of the lake basin across the surface of the ice, where it isn't likely to have much effect on overall ice sheet movements.

The new observations suggest that this assumption is wrong. The lake's drainage sent more than 1.26 billion gallons (4.77 billion liters) of water toward the base of the ice, where it can do the most damage. The only reason the lake didn't drain completely was that the fracture didn't extend into the deepest part of the lake basin.

"That means that, in hindsight, we've been underestimating the ability of lakes to drain and create conduits that transfer water from the surface to the base of the ice sheet," Christoffersen said. The data from this research can be used to improve computer simulations that predict what the ice sheet will do in the future, he said.

"Understanding exactly how these fractures intersect lakes and how the lakes subsequently interconnect is going to play a key role in how we will model the ice sheet in a much more refined and realistic way in the future," Christoffersen said. 

Originally published on Live Science.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

  • CTYankee
    What this suggests is that the glacier's temperature between the bedrock and the surface is in near equilibrium with the melting/freezing point! which speaks *volumes* as to what the 'proper' temperature at that latitude is or should be.

    If we _suppose_ the ground temperature was supposed to be below freezing then then first trickles of water which reached the colder material would have frozen solid, plugging the hole and checking the flow. Result: the lake would have stayed full of water, possible overflowing its banks and thickening the glacier.

    However, the presence of deep fissures in the glacier can be interpreted as convincing evidence that the ground at that latitude cannot be a permanent repository of ice creating temperatures. One need only look at a dripping faucet in the wintertime to know that liquid water dripping on a sub-freezing object will coat that object in an ever thickening layer of ice.

    Of course the simple facts do absolutely nothing to convince the masses that Man Made Global Warming is the kind of esoteric threat that demands additional government funding to investigate. I've been tormenting the Alarmists with logic for decades, and I have yet to meet a single one who has said: "I've finished my thesis on MMGW, I'm moving on to another area of study." Rather they all insist that the subject requires years of additional study and millions of dollars in grants to support it -- despite the science being 'settled' -- go figure?
  • Liam Lucas
    There is of course the distinct possibility that the water has flowed into a cavern near the top of one of the volcanoes, and that if that water actually reaches the magma, then there will be a huge explosive eruption.
  • CTYankee
    Liam Lucas said:
    There is of course the distinct possibility that the water has flowed into a cavern near the top of one of the volcanoes, and that if that water actually reaches the magma, then there will be a huge explosive eruption.

    I'd be willing to pay $1 to watch that video!