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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 07 May 2019

Research article | 07 May 2019

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

Past and future response of Greenland's tidewater glaciers to submarine melting

Donald Slater1, Fiamma Straneo1, Denis Felikson2, Chris Little3, Heiko Goelzer4,5, Xavier Fettweis6, and James Holte1 Donald Slater et al.
  • 1Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA
  • 2NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, USA
  • 3Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc., Lexington, MA, USA
  • 4Utrecht University, Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • 5Laboratoire de Glaciologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium
  • 6Laboratory of Climatology, Department of Geography, University of Liège, Liège, Belgium

Abstract. The effect of the North Atlantic Ocean on the Greenland Ice Sheet through submarine melting of Greenland's tidewater glacier calving fronts is thought to be a key driver of widespread glacier retreat, dynamic mass loss and sea level contribution from the ice sheet. Despite its critical importance, problems of process complexity and scale hinder efforts to represent the influence of submarine melting in ice sheet-scale models. Here we propose parameterizing tidewater glacier terminus position as a simple linear function of submarine melting, with submarine melting in turn estimated as a function of subglacial runoff and ocean temperature. The relationship is tested, calibrated and validated using datasets of terminus position, runoff and ocean temperature covering the full ice sheet and surrounding ocean from the period 1960–present. We demonstrate a statistically significant link between multi-decadal tidewater glacier terminus position and submarine melting and show that the proposed parameterisation has predictive power when considering a population of glaciers. An illustrative 21st century projection is considered suggesting that tidewater glaciers in Greenland will undergo little further retreat in a low emissions RCP2.6 scenario. In contrast, a high emissions RCP8.5 scenario results in a median retreat of ∼6 km, with 35 % of glaciers experiencing retreat exceeding 10 km. Our study provides a long-term and ice sheet-wide assessment of the sensitivity of tidewater glaciers to submarine melting and proposes a practical and empirically validated means of incorporating ocean forcing into models of the Greenland ice sheet.

Donald Slater et al.
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Donald Slater et al.
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Publications Copernicus
Short summary
The ocean's influence on the retreat of Greenland's tidewater glaciers is a key factor determining future sea level. By considering observations of ∼200 glaciers and their climate forcing since 1960 we find a significant relationship between terminus position and submarine melting. Projected forwards, the relationship estimates the future evolution of Greenland’s marine margin and provides a practical and empirically-validated means of representing ice-ocean interaction in large-scale models.
The ocean's influence on the retreat of Greenland's tidewater glaciers is a key factor...