sea level

Suppressed Melt Percolation in Greenland Firn

Posted by William Colgan on May 19, 2016
Climate Change, New Research / No Comments

We have a new open-access study in the current volume of Annals of Glaciology that tracks the fate of meltwater in the relatively porous near-surface firn of the Greenland Ice Sheet using temperature sensors1 (available here). One of the main goals of this study was to understand what fraction of the meltwater produced at the ice sheet surface percolates vertically into the firn and locally refreezes, rather than leaving the ice sheet as runoff and contributing to sea level rise. The total retention capacity of all of Greenland’s firn could be a non-trivial buffer against sea level rise2.

For this particular study, we deployed firn temperature sensors at depths of up to 15 m at KAN_U. The sensors were automated to record data throughout the year, between our spring sites visits. KAN_U is located at 1840 m elevation in Southwest Greenland in the lower accumulation area. While KAN_U traditionally receives more mass from snowfall than it loses from melt, our study focused on the “extreme” 2012 melt season, which was the first year since records began that there was more meltwater runoff than snowfall at the site.


Figure 1 – Lead author Charalampos Charalampidis drilling a borehole on the Greenland Ice Sheet near KAN_U during the 2013 spring field campaign.

As refreezing meltwater releases a tremendous amount of latent energy, the location of refreezing meltwater within the firn can be inferred from temperature anomalies. We assessed temperature anomalies by comparing our observed firn temperatures against modeled firn temperatures, whereby the modeled temperatures only accounted for heat exchanged with the ice sheet surface via diffusion, not latent heat release. This allowed us to identify depths where firn temperatures were warmer than expected.


Figure 2 – Automated observations of firn temperatures in the top 10 m of firn at KAN_U over four years. There is a strong annual cycle in near-surface firn temperatures.

We found that despite 2012 being an extreme melt year, meltwater percolation and refreezing only occurred to 2.5 m depth during the melt season. It was only after the end of the melt season that some meltwater managed to percolate and refreeze in discrete bands at 5.5 and 8.5 m depth. This inference of relatively inefficient vertical meltwater percolation during the melt season appears to support the idea that thick and impermeable ice lenses that had previously formed within the firn during 2010 were inhibiting the percolation of 2012 meltwater3.

Maintaining the relatively sensitive automatic weather station needed to accurately measure firn temperatures and surface energy fluxes in the relatively harsh ice sheet environment was no easy task. It took a number of scientists and funding agencies, which are listed in the acknowledgement section of the paper, to make this study possible. The KAN_U weather station continues to report real-time climate data via the Programme for Monitoring of the Greenland Ice Sheet (PROMICE) data portal:


Figure 3 – A: Location of Kangerlussuaq Upper Station (KAN_U) on the Greenland Ice Sheet. B: A PROMICE climate station deployed to measure firn temperatures and surface energy budget.

1Charalampidis, C., D. van As, W. Colgan, R. Fausto, M. MacFerrin and H. Machguth. 2016. Thermal tracing of retained meltwater in the lower accumulation area of the Southwestern Greenland ice sheet. Annals of Glaciology. doi:10.1017/aog.2016.2.

2Harper, J., N. Humphrey, W. Pfeffer, J. Brown and X. Fettweis. 2012. Greenland ice-sheet contribution to sea-level rise buffered by meltwater storage in firn. Nature. 491: 240-243.

3Machguth, H., M. MacFerrin, D. van As, J. Box, C. Charalampidis, W. Colgan, R. Fausto, H. Meijer, E. Mosley-Thompson and R. van de Wal. 2016. Greenland meltwater storage in firn limited by near-surface ice formation. Nature Climate Change. 6: 390–393.

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Greenland Ice Sheet “Thermal-Viscous Collapse”

Posted by William Colgan on July 17, 2015
Climate Change, New Research / No Comments

We have a new study in the AGU open access journal Earth’s Future this month, which introduces the notion of thermal-viscous collapse of the Greenland ice sheet1. While people tend to think of ice as a solid, it is actually a non-Newtonian fluid, because it deforms and flows over longer time-scales. Of the many strange material properties of ice, the non-linear temperature dependence of its viscosity is especially notable; ice at 0 °C deforms almost ten times more than ice at -10 °C at the same stress. This temperature-dependent viscosity makes ice flow very sensitive to ice temperature. We know that the extra meltwater now being produced at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, relative to 50 or 100 years ago, contains tremendous latent heat energy. So, in the study, we set out to see if the latent heat in future extra meltwater might have a significant impact on future ice sheet form and flow.

We first developed a conceptual model of what we called “thermal-viscous collapse”, which we define as the enhanced ice flow resulting from warming ice temperatures and subsequently softer ice viscosities. We decided there were three key processes necessary for initiating a thermal-viscous collapse: (1) sufficient energy available in future meltwater runoff, (2) routing of that extra meltwater to the ice-bed interface, and (3) efficient transfer of latent energy from meltwater to the ice. Drawing on previous model projections and observational process studies, and admittedly an injection of explicit speculation, we concluded that it is plausible to warm the deepest 15 % of the Greenland ice sheet, where the majority of deformation occurs, from characteristic Holocene temperatures to the melting-point in the next four centuries.


Figure 1 – Three key elements of thermal-viscous Greenland ice sheet collapse: (1) Sufficient energy available in projected Greenland meltwater runoff, (2) Routing of a fraction of meltwater to the interior ice-bed interface, and (3) Efficient energy transfer from meltwater to ice. This cross-sectional profile reflects mean observed Greenland ice surface and bedrock elevations between 74.1 and 76.4°N. Dashed lines illustrate stylized marine and land glacier termini.

We then used a simple (first-order Navier-Stokes) model of ice flow to simulate the effect of this warming and softening on the ice sheet over the next five centuries. We used a Monte Carlo approach, whereby we ran fifty simulations in which multiple key parameters were varied within their associated uncertainty. As may be expected, warming the deepest 15 % of the ice sheet by 8.8 °C, from characteristic Holocene temperatures to the melting-point, had a significant influence on ice sheet form and flow. Due to softer ice viscosities, the mean ice sheet surface velocity increased three fold, from 43 ± 4 m/yr to 126 ± 17 m/yr, resulting in an ice dynamic drawdown of the ice sheet, causing a 5 ± 2 % ice sheet volume reduction within 500 years. This is equivalent to a global mean sea-level rise contribution of 33 ± 18 cm (or just over one US foot). Of course, the vast majority of the sea level rise associated with thermal-viscous collapse would occur over subsequent millennia.


Figure 2 – Probability density time series of ensemble spread of 50 simulations in prescribed ice temperature (a), mean surface ice velocity (b), and ice volume (c), over a 200-year spin-up to transient equilibrium, and the subsequent 500-year combined transient forcing and spin-down period.

Perhaps a caveat or two: Just like simulating a marine instability induced collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, our simulation of a thermal-viscous collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is an entirely hypothetical end-member scenario. It is admittedly difficult to interpret end-member assessments when their probability of occurrence is unknown. In our case, we did not attempt to constrain the probability of a thermal-viscous collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, we merely demonstrated that initiating a thermal-viscous collapse appears plausible within four centuries, and assessed the associated sea-level rise contribution. Additionally, it may be debatable whether the combination of crevasses and reverse drainage can indeed route meltwater throughout the ice sheet interior, but I suppose that is a debate worth having!


1Colgan, W., A. Sommers, H. Rajaram, W. Abdalati, and J. Frahm. 2015. Considering thermal-viscous collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. Earth’s Future. 3. doi:10.1002/2015EF000301.

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