Geothermal Influence on Basal Ice Temperatures

Posted by William Colgan on January 28, 2024
Climate Change, Communicating Science, New Research / No Comments

We have a new open-access study out in the current volume of The Cryosphere that looks at geothermal heat flow beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. Geothermal heat flow is an important boundary condition for ice flow models because it influences the temperature of the ice-bed interface, which in turn influences how easily ice can deform and flow. Right now, there are about seven widely used estimates of geothermal heat flow beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet (Figure 1). These different heat flow maps come from different research groups, using different methods. It hasn’t been entirely clear what the influence of choice of heat flow map has on modeled ice flow. For example, the ensemble of Greenland ice flow projections within the Ice-Sheet Model Inter-comparison Project for CMIP6 (ISMIP6) used differing heat flow maps. Our new study simply spins up a Greenland ice flow model with all seven heat flow maps and tries to understand the resulting differences in ice thickness and velocity.

Figure 1 – The differences in the magnitude and spatial distribution of geothermal heat flow, relative to ensemble mean, in the seven Greenland geothermal heat flow maps we assessed in this study.

Although the average geothermal heat flow only varies by about ±10 mW/m2 across the seven heat flow maps, there are pronounced variations in the spatial distributions of this heat flow. This means that there can be local heat flow differences of up to ±100 mW/m2 between individual heat flow maps. When the ice sheet model is spun up in a fully transient mode with these different heat flow maps, there are lots of areas where the difference in ice thickness from ensemble mean exceeds ±150 meters (Figure 2). This is due to spatial differences in basal ice temperatures, which strongly influence the viscosity and deformation of ice. Across the seven transient spin ups, the discharge of icebergs into the ocean varies by about ±10 gigatonnes per year, which is equivalent to about ±2.5% of the total ice-sheet iceberg discharge.

Figure 2 – The differences in ice thickness after a fully transient 10,000 year spin up, relative to ensemble mean, associated with the seven Greenland geothermal heat flow maps we assessed in this study.

We also spun up the ice flow model with the seven different heat flow maps under a so-called “nudged” spin up that was a key part of ISMIP6. Unlike a fully transient spin up, a “nudged” spin up constrains modeled ice thicknesses with observed ice thicknesses; it generally ensures a very realistic geometry for the simulated ice sheet. Although the ice geometry is more-or-less constant across these “nudged” simulations, there are still pronounced differences in the magnitude and spatial distribution of ice velocity. This largely results from large differences in the extents of the frozen and thawed ice-bed areas. Depending on choice of heat flow map, between 22 and 54% of the ice-bed area is simulated as thawed (Figure 3). This has strong implications for the proportion of the ice sheet beneath which water-dependent processes, like basal sliding, can occur.

Figure 3 – The differences in temperature at the ice-bed interface after a nudged ISMIP6-style spin up, relative to pressure melting point, associated with the seven Greenland geothermal heat flow maps we assessed in this study.

So, what is the way forward after showing that the choice of heat flow map has a non-trivial impact on Greenland ice sheet simulations? Well, deciding which heat flow map is “the best” is one approach. We highlight a small, but growing, database of in situ temperature measurements against which simulated ice temperatures can be compared. There are also qualitative hints as to which heat flow map might be most appropriate. For example, does it preserve the widespread frozen basal conditions that we find in North Greenland? In terms of community ice-sheet projections, we recommend that it may be prudent to limit the direct inter-comparison of ice-sheet simulations to those using a common heat-flow map. In terms of ISMIP specifically, we suggest that future ensemble should perhaps use a range of basal geothermal forcing scenarios, similar to how it employs a range climate forcing scenarios.

Zhang, T., Colgan, W., Wansing, A., Løkkegaard, A., Leguy, G., Lipscomb, W. H., and Xiao, C.: Evaluating different geothermal heat-flow maps as basal boundary conditions during spin-up of the Greenland ice sheet, The Cryosphere, 18, 387–402,, 2024.

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New View on Geothermal Heat Flow in Greenland and Antarctica

Posted by William Colgan on January 15, 2021
New Research / No Comments

We have a new open-access study about geothermal heat flow beneath the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface. 

Presently, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the magnitude and pattern of geothermal heat flow beneath both ice sheets. That’s because it has only been sampled at a handful of widely spaced deep ice cores (Figure 1). While the average value of geothermal heat flow is relatively small, getting it right is essential for ice-flow models. If you run a computer simulation of an ice sheet with a severe over- or under-estimation of the geothermal heat flow, you can easily end up generating an ice sheet that is either too warm or too cold. Ice flow is very sensitive to temperature – particularly near the bed – so geothermal heat flow is a critical variable for simulating the form and flow of Earth’s ice sheets.

Figure 1 – Peering into the drill trench at the NEEM deep ice core site. NEEM is one of only six deep ice core sites in the Greenland Ice Sheet interior where geothermal heat flow has been measured to date.

Our study took a fresh look at changes in geothermal heat flow across space, but not those due to the subtle variations in Earth’s crust and mantle properties over tens of km. Instead, we examined the effect of the ice-sheet bed’s topographic relief on geothermal heat flow to generate the first comprehensive snapshot of changes in geothermal heat flow at scales of hundreds of meters due to that relief. It’s been known for over a century that geothermal heat flow is greater in valleys and smaller on ridges. Basically, if the heat escaping Earth’s interior is looking for the quickest way to radiate into the atmosphere, a deeply incised valley provides the fastest exit. This effect is readily observable from the fact that geotherms – surfaces of constant temperature – are packed more closely together beneath valleys, indicating a stronger temperature gradient there (and hence heat flow) in comparison to ridges.

We created a simple statistical model to estimate this topographic influence on geothermal heat flow. This model essentially uses a digital elevation model of the bedrock topography to assess local topographic relief and then converts this local relief into a fractional correction for geothermal heat flow. It produces a positive correction – an increase – for valleys, and vice versa for ridges. Our approach is admittedly simple and empirical – a literal “first-order” approximation – but it seems to reliably reproduce the topographic variability in geothermal heat flow in all the settings for which we could find previous studies. So, we applied this statistical model to digital elevation models for Greenland and Antarctica. This revealed much more detail in a geothermal heat flow map than we are used to seeing.

Figure 2 – Left: An existing regional geothermal heat flow model (Martos2017). Right: Regional geothermal heat flow corrected for local topographic relief.

Across both Greenland and Antarctica, we see patterns of increased geothermal heat flow within deeply incised glacier valleys and decreased geothermal heat flow along ridges and mountains. In many regions, most notably the Antarctic Peninsula (Figure 2) and Central East Greenland (Figure 3), we find that local topography routinely modifies regional geothermal heat flow by more than ~50%.

Figure 3 – Left: An existing regional geothermal heat flow model (Martos2018). Right: Regional geothermal heat flow corrected for local topographic relief.

In Greenland, we estimate that there are ~100 outlet glaciers that are both sufficiently narrow and deeply incised to more than double local geothermal heat flow relative to that of the regional average value. The model also suggests that – especially deep within the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet – local geothermal heat flow may be sufficiently suppressed along prominent subglacial ridges to cause subglacial water to refreeze. (At least, in ice-sheet areas where the ice-bed interface is near the freezing point.) 

The topographic correction for geothermal heat flow that we model is only as a good as the topographic relief that we derive from subglacial digital elevation models. Generally, in areas where subglacial topography is best resolved, the effect of the topography on the local geothermal heat flow is greater than uncertainty in the underlying regional geothermal heat flow model (Figure 4). There are still large swaths of the ice sheets where subglacial topography remains poorly resolved. In these areas, our model is not tremendously useful; the existing uncertainties between regional geothermal heat flow models are still larger than any local topographic correction that we can estimate.

Figure 4 – Maps of Antarctica and Greenland identifying areas, illustrated in red, where the influence of local topographic relief on geothermal heat flow is at least as important as the choice of geothermal heat flow model. As subglacial topography is still poorly resolved in both ice sheet interiors. These red areas may be expected to expand with improved mapping of subglacial topography.

The topographic corrections for geothermal heat flow in Greenland and Antarctica that we have calculated are now available as dimensionless fields in NetCDF format, with grids that are the same resolution as BedMachine, for each region via the PROMICE data portal ( This means that they can be anonymously downloaded and applied to any regional geothermal heat flow model of the user’s choice. We hope that these topographic corrections for geothermal heat flow will be adopted into ice-flow models to improve both present-day ice-sheet simulations, as well as our understanding of the role of geothermal heat flow in the feedback between ice flow and topography on geologic timescales.

It has certainly been a long and winding road to this publication – the original draft of this article was first submitted in June 2019 – and we are grateful for Noah Finnegan (University of California Santa Cruz) and Olga Sergienko (Princeton University) for serving as editors to four very helpful peer-reviewers. Interdisciplinary projects can clearly provide a bumpier ride than staying in your own lane, but – in this instance – the journey seems to have taken us to a very different view of geothermal heat flow in Greenland and Antarctica.

Development of this data product was funded by the award “HOTROD: Prototype for Rapid Sampling of Ice-Sheet Basal Temperatures” provided by the Experiment Programme of the Villum Foundation. Improved understanding of the spatial variability in subglacial geothermal heat flow helps us optimize drill site selection and analyze ice temperature measurements. This data product was also supported by the Danish Ministry for Climate, Energy and Supplies through the Programme for Monitoring of the Greenland Ice Sheet (PROMICE).

Colgan, W., J. MacGregor, K. Mankoff, R. Haagenson, H. Rajaram, Y. Martos, M. Morlighem, M. Fahnestock and K. Kjeldsen. 2021. Topographic Correction of Geothermal Heat Flux in Greenland and Antarctica. Journal of Geophysical Research. 125: e2020JF005598. doi:10.1029/2020JF005598.

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