We have a new open-access study in the current issue of Journal of Glaciology that investigates the “cold content” of Greenland’s high-elevation firn plateau1. Firn is the relatively low density near-surface ice-sheet layer comprised of snow being compressed into ice. Cold content is one of its quirkier properties. Of course, all firn is literally freezing – meaning below 0°C – but some firn is colder than other firn. Clearly, it takes a lot more energy to warm -30°C firn to 0°C, than it does for -1°C firn. Our study highlights at least one discernible shift in cold content – how much sensible heat energy is required to warm firn to the 0°C melting point – in response to climate change.
There is a strong annual cycle in firn cold content. Generally, cold content is at its maximum each April, after the firn has been cooled by winter air temperatures. Cold content then decreases through summer, as warming air temperatures and meltwater percolation pump energy into the firn, to reach a minimum each September. The magnitude of this annual cycle varies across the ice sheet, primarily as a function of the meltwater production, but also as a function of snowfall-dependent firn density. Firn density is highly sensitive to snowfall rate, and firn cold content is a function of firn density.
We find few discernible year-on-year trends in cold content across the highest elevation areas of the firn plateau. For example, there is perhaps a slight decrease at Summit – where we find snowfall is increasing at 24 mm/decade and air temperatures are warming at 0.29°C/decade – but statistically-significant multi-annual trends in cold content are difficult to separate from year-to-year variability. At Dye-2, however, which has the greatest melt rate of the sites that we examine, there is clear evidence of the impact of changing climate. At Dye-2, an exceptional 1-month melt event in 2012 removed ~24% of the cold content in the top 20 m of firn. It took five years for cold content to recover to the pre-2012 level.
The refreezing of meltwater within firn is a potential buffer against the contribution of ice-sheet melt to sea-level rise; surface melt can refreeze within porous firn instead of running off into the ocean. But refreezing meltwater requires available firn cold content. The multi-annual reset of cold content that we document at Dye-2 suggests that a single melt event can reduce firn cold content – and thus precondition firn for potentially less meltwater refreezing – for years to follow. This highlights the potential for the cold content of Greenland’s firn plateau to decrease in a non-linear fashion, as climate change pushes melt events to progressively higher elevations of the firn plateau.
1Vandecrux, B., R. Fausto, D. van As, W. Colgan, P. Langen, K. Haubner, T. Ingeman-Nielsen, A. Heilig, C. Stevens, M. MacFerrin, M. Niwano, K. Steffen and J. Box. 2020. Firn cold content evolution at nine sites on the Greenland ice sheet between 1998 and 2017. Journal of Glaciology..