‘Cold Content’ of Greenland’s Firn Plateau

Posted by William Colgan on April 29, 2020
Climate Change, Communicating Science, New Research / No Comments

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.

Figure 1 – The nine high-elevation ice-sheet sites where we assessed firn cold content in the top 20 m.

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.

Figure 2 – The mean annual cycle in four-component firn cold content assessed at the nine ice-sheet sites over the 1988-2017 period. Note the relatively large latent heat release associated with meltwater at Dye-2, in comparison to other sites.

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.

Figure 3 – The cumulative four-component firn cold content at the nine ice-sheet sites over the 1998-2017 period. Note the sharp loss of Dye-2 cold content in 2012, and the subsequent multi-year recovery of this cold content.

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..

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Rapid Sampling of Ice-Sheet Temperatures

Posted by William Colgan on September 10, 2018
Applied Glaciology, New Research / 1 Comment

We are starting a new two-year project to design, build and deploy a new type of ice-drill to measure temperatures at the ice-bed interface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Why? Because we are unsure whether the bed is frozen or thawed beneath about one third of the ice sheet. As the rate at which ice flows is dependent on ice temperature – and basal ice temperature in particular – this translates into uncertainty in simulations of how ice sheet form and flow will evolve over time.

We suspect that climate change is likely driving an expansion of the thawed-bedded portion of the ice sheet — eroding the frozen-bedded portion — over time. But in the last sixty years, direct temperature measurements of the ice-bed interface have only been made at six inland ice-sheet locations. These scarce, but tremendously valuable, basal ice temperatures have been measured at the sites of ice core deep-drilling projects. These deep-drilling projects take months or even years to create a 30 cm wide borehole to the ice-sheet bed from which to retrieve delicate ice core.

Figure 1 – Schematic of the HOTROD melt-tip and cross-section of the umbilical cord. The umbilical cord will both power the melt-tip as well as contain embedded ice-temperature sensors.

This project will design, build and deploy a drill for rapid sampling of ice-sheet basal temperatures. HOTROD will use an approximately 5KW electric melt-tip to open 3 cm wide access boreholes to depths of 500 m within days. The HOTROD umbilical cord will not only power the melt-tip, but also have embedded temperature sensors that — with the melt-tip — make a one-way trip to the ice-sheet bed. The heart of the melt-tip will be recently designed heating elements intended for rapid heating of energy-efficient domestic hot water supplies.

In 1971, thermal drilling was used to recover the top 372 m of ice core at Dye-3. The Dye-3 deep ice core was subsequently completed to 2037 m with electro-mechanical drilling in 1981. Thermal drilling technology was last used in Greenland in 1974, to recover a 403 m ice core at Crete, Greenland1. While there’s been numerous hot-water drilling projects since then, the working memory of thermal drilling is fading. The goal of this project is to successfully deploy a melt-tip thermal drill to measure a 500 m deep ice-sheet temperature profile with less than ten days of drilling. Initial field-testing activities will begin in 2019.

Figure 2 – The Dye-3 ice-drilling trench. In comparison to the multi-year logistical footprints of deep ice-coring projects, the HOTROD melt-tip drill will require trace logistics.

We hope that the advent of rapid melt-tip drilling will be a disruptive technology within the sphere of ice-sheet research now dominated by conventional electro-mechanical and hot-water drilling systems. A concerted effort to sample more temperatures at the ice-bed interface may potentially shift our understanding of ice-sheet basal temperatures and even ice-sheet sensitivity to climate change. This project is funded by Villum Experiment, a programme of Villum Foundation that funds science and engineering projects that challenge the norm and have the potential to transform traditional approaches2.

1Langway, C. 2008. The History of Early Polar Ice Cores. Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Technical Report 08-1.

2Villum Foundation. 2018. 53 bold ideas receive funding from VILLUM FONDEN.

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Glacier Mining Photos & Videos (Open File)

Posted by William Colgan on February 03, 2015
Applied Glaciology, Glaciers and Society / No Comments

I have started this open file of selected glacier mining photos and videos with content mostly gleaned from Twitter. At present its coverage is limited to Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan, but I am interested in content that illustrates the unique geotechnical challenges of working with glaciers from other proglacial mining projects too. So please contact me if you have some!


Open ice pit at Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan in 2013 (via Ryskeldi Satke).

Open ice pit at Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan in 2013 (via Ryskeldi Satke).

6 - активисты Саруу, июль 2013 посещ Кумтор

An excavator used for glacier mining at Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan (via Ryskeldi Satke).

4 - активисты Саруу, июль 2013 посещ. Кумтор

A glacier cut face at Kumtor Mine, Kyrgyzstan (via Ryskeldi Satke).



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