Freshwater Runoff from Greenland’s 54K Basins

Posted by William Colgan on November 12, 2020
New Research / No Comments

We have a new open-access study out in the current issue of Earth Systems Science Data. In this study, we estimate the liquid water discharge – meaning meltwater and rainfall flowing into the ocean – every day since 1958 from 54,142 hydrologic basins across Greenland. About 40% of these basins are associated with glaciers or the ice sheet, and these “ice” basins accounted for ~65% of Greenland’s total liquid water discharge. On an annual basis, we estimate that Greenland’s liquid discharge varied from between ~136 km3 in 1992 and ~785 km3 in 2012. The daily discharge records and these individual basins are now available online. This dataset provides a great improvement in our understanding of when and where freshwater is entering Greenlandic fjords.

Where possible, we compared the daily discharge records of individual basins that we downscale from climate models to actual observed river discharge measurements. There are only a few continuous river gauging stations in Greenland operated by different monitoring programs and research groups. Thankfully, we could use publicly accessible observational records from nine basins (Kingigtorssuaq, Kobbefjord, Leverett, Oriartorfik, Qaanaaq, Røde Elv, Teqinngalip, Watson and Zackenberg) to assess performance of our data product. These comparisons show that the accuracy of data product varies with both basin size – or discharge volume – as well as climate model. Generally, however, the data product reproduces the magnitude and variability of observed basin discharge within a reasonable uncertainty.

Downscaling runoff from regional climate models to individual basins is clearly sensitive to errors or uncertainties in the elevation model guiding the hydrological routing. This is especially true for glacier or ice-sheet basins, which require additional assumptions about the effective water pressure within the ice. Hydrologic boundaries can shift due to slight changes in elevation or effective water pressure. We therefore ran our hydrological routing code many times to see how sensitive the location of basin outlets – meaning where water drains from ice-to-tundra or tundra-to-ocean – where to common assumptions. We found many basin outlets around the low-elevation ice-sheet ablation area can shift by more than 30 km under a range of common assumptions. This highlights the challenge of trying to balance a water budget within a given fjord. It also points to where improved knowledge of subglacial topography is most needed.

Sensitivity in assessed basin outlet location — land outlets (Left) and ice outlets (Right) — to common hydrologic routing assumptions. Ice-sheet basins likely vary with effective water pressure on both inter- and intra-annual time-scales.

A neat aspect of this study is that the source code is also made available open access. This code-sharing approach is part of the growing “open science” movement. Sharing code not only makes complex results reproducible, but also helps different research teams move forward. In this case, basin-scale runoff estimates are sensitive to the choices of both climate model and downscaling method. By making the source code available, subsequent research teams can implement precisely the same climate model and/or downscaling methods. The development of this data and code product was funded by the Danish Ministry for Climate, Energy and Supply to the Programme for Monitoring of the Greenland Ice Sheet (, as well as European Union’s Horizon 2020 to the INTAROS project (

Mankoff, K., B. Noël, X. Fettweis, A. Ahlstrøm, W. Colgan, K. Kondo, K. Langley, S. Sugiyama, D. van As, and R. Fausto,  2020. Greenland liquid water runoff from 1958 through 2019, Earth System Science Data. 12: 2811–2841. doi:10.5194/essd-12-2811-2020.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,