Rainfall on the Greenland Ice Sheet

Posted by William Colgan on August 04, 2021
Climate Change, New Research

We have a new open-access study in the current issue of Geophysical Research Letters that looks at rainfall over the Greenland Ice Sheet. In many places around the globe, rainfall is a big player in the water budget. But on the ice sheet, rainfall has traditionally been a small player in ice-sheet mass balance. In fact, virtually all of the automatic weathers stations deployed on the ice sheet today don’t even measure rainfall. These ice-sheet stations are instead optimized to measure accumulation from snowfall and ablation from melt. But, as major rainfall events are pushing higher and higher on to the ice sheet each year, that is starting to change. Today, there are a few research groups experimenting with different ice-sheet rainfall gauges.

Figure 1 – Average annual rainfall (left) and trend in annual rainfall (right) over the 1980 to 2019 period. Evaluation weather stations identified by WMO (World Meteorological Organization) numbers: Aasiaat (04220), Sisimiut (04230), Nuuk (04250), Narsarsuaq (34270), Danmarkshavn (34320), and Ittoqqortoormiit (34339).

In our new study, we simulate rainfall over the ice-sheet using a regional climate model. Specifically a “non-hydrostatic” model. This class of model is supposed to reproduce the continuum mechanics of atmospheric flow better than traditional “hydrostatic” models. The traditional hydrostatic models make some simplifying assumptions that can influence atmospheric flow and precipitation, especially across grid cells with high topographic relief. In the absence of ice-sheet rainfall observations, we compared the simulated rainfall to several weather stations operating in communities around Greenland’s coast. This comparison showed that the model could reasonably simulate the rainfall, including extreme events, that was observed at these weather stations. This gives us some confidence that the model’s rainfall physics are similarly faithful on the ice sheet.

Over the forty-year period 1981–2010, the model simulates increases in both rainfall and rainfall intensity, across the ice sheet and especially in late summer. We specifically find that total September rainfall increased by 224% over this period. The maximum intensity of September rainfall also increased by 54% during this same period. This is consistent with the expectation that the summer melt season will lengthen and intensify in a warming climate. Some of the most pronounced increases in rainfall were seen in Northwest Greenland. There, the rainfall fraction of precipitation is about twice the ice-sheet average. We speculate that this increasing trend in rainfall in Northwest Greenland may be related to a northward shift in the limit to which relatively warm and moist mid-latitude airmasses can penetrate each summer.

Figure 2 – September maximum hourly rainfall rates over the ice sheet and each sector. For the entire ice sheet (GrIS), as well as southeast (SE), south (S), and southwest (SW) sectors, linear trends are indicated together (dashed lines).

A large rainfall event can have a similar influence on ice dynamics as a large melt event. Once liquid meltwater enters the ice sheet, flowing in the en- and sub-glacial hydrology systems, there are myriad of ways it can make ice flow faster. Chief among these is warming and softening the ice (so the ice internally deforms and flow more easily) and pressurizing the subglacial hydrology system (so the ice-sheet slides more easily). For this reason, there is also an ice dynamic interest in big rainfall events. Some of the most pronounced increase in extreme rainfall events (i.e. >5 cm per hour) were in South Greenland. There, the ice sheet is most exposed to mid-latitude storms from the North Atlantic. There is an expectation for the intensity of storms to increase in a warming climate.

We will probably hear a lot more about rainfall on the Greenland Ice Sheet in the coming years. Hopefully, once some of the technical challenges are overcome, we will start to see the systematic collection of continuous rainfall measurements on the ice sheet. Given our current climate trajectory, we will also start to see rainfall comprising a larger portion of the annual ice-sheet water budget, especially in ice-sheet basins in South Greenland. There are already several studies linking rainfall events to ice motion at lower elevations, but presumably these links will also start to be made at higher elevations. There is a lot of research to do on the topic of ice-sheet rainfall!

M. Niwano, J. E. Box, A. Wehrlé, B. Vandecrux, W. T. Colgan and J. Cappelen. 2021. Rainfall on the Greenland Ice Sheet: Present-Day Climatology From a High-Resolution Non-Hydrostatic Polar Regional Climate Model. Geophysical Research Letters. https://doi.org/10.1029/2021GL092942.

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