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The Cryosphere An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Research article 03 Apr 2019

Research article | 03 Apr 2019

Review status
This discussion paper is a preprint. It is a manuscript under review for the journal The Cryosphere (TC).

Glacier algae accelerate melt rates on the western Greenland Ice Sheet

Joseph M. Cook1, Andrew J. Tedstone2, Christopher Williamson3, Jenine McCutcheon4, Andrew J. Hodson5,6, Archana Dayal1, McKenzie Skiles7, Stefan Hofer2, Robert Bryant1, Owen McAree8, Andrew McGonigle1,9, Jonathan Ryan11, Alexandre M. Anesio12, Tristram D. L. Irvine-Fynn10, Alun Hubbard13, Edward Hanna14, Mark Flanner15, Sathish Mayanna16, Liane G. Benning4,16,17, Dirk van As18, Marian Yallop3, Jim McQuaid4, Thomas Gribbin2, and Martyn Tranter2 Joseph M. Cook et al.
  • 1Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, UK
  • 2Center for Glaciology, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  • 3Department of Biosciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
  • 4School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK
  • 5Department of Geology, University Centre in Svalbard, Svalbard, Norway
  • 6Department of Environmental Sciences, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, 6856 Sogndal, Norway
  • 7Department of Geography, University of Utah, USA
  • 8Faculty of Science, Liverpool John Moores University, UK
  • 9School of Geociences, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
  • 10Department of Geography and Earth Science, Aberystwyth University, Wales, SY23 3DB, UK
  • 11Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
  • 12Department of Environmental Science, Aarhus University, 4000 Roskilde, Denmark
  • 13Centre for Gas Hydrates and Climate, University of Tromso, Norway
  • 14School of Geography and Lincoln Centre for Water and Planetary Health, University of Lincoln, UK
  • 15University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
  • 16German Research Centre for Geosciences, GFZ, Potsdam, Germany
  • 17Department of Earth Sciences, Free University of Berlin, Germany
  • 18Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Copenhagen, Denmark

Abstract. Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) is the largest single contributor to eustatic sea level and is amplified by the growth of pigmented algae on the ice surface that increase solar radiation absorption. This biological albedo reducing effect and its impact upon sea level rise has not previously been quantified. Here, we combine field spectroscopy with a novel radiative transfer model, supervised classification of UAV and satellite remote sensing data and runoff modelling to calculate biologically-driven ice surface ablation and compare it to the albedo reducing effects of local mineral dust. We demonstrate that algal growth led to an additional 5.5–8.0 Gt of runoff from the western sector of the GrIS in summer 2016, representing 6–9 % of the total. Our analysis confirms the importance of the biological albedo feedback and that its omission from predictive models leads to the systematic underestimation of Greenland’s future sea level contribution, especially because both the bare ice zones available for algal colonization and the length of the active growth season are set to expand in the future.

Joseph M. Cook et al.
Interactive discussion
Status: final response (author comments only)
Status: final response (author comments only)
AC: Author comment | RC: Referee comment | SC: Short comment | EC: Editor comment
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Joseph M. Cook et al.
Data sets

Field and associated datasets J. M. Cook, A. Tedstone, C. Williamson, J. McCutcheon, and the Black and Bloom Project

Model code and software

BioSNICAR_GO J. M. Cook, A. Tedstone, C. Williamson, and J. McCutcheon

IceSurfClassifiers J. M. Cook and A. Tedstone

Field Spectra Processing J. M. Cook

Joseph M. Cook et al.
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Publications Copernicus
Short summary
Sea level rise is a great challenge facing modern humans. Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet is a major source of uncertainty for future projections. Algae growing on the ice has been recognized as an accelerator of melting. This paper measures the algae-driven ice melting and maps the algae over the ice sheet for the first time. We estimate that between 5.5–8.0 billion tonnes of runoff (6–9 % of total) can be attributed to these algae, showing they must be included in climate models.
Sea level rise is a great challenge facing modern humans. Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet is...