Seafloor map shows why Greenland’s glaciers melt at different rates

Deep seafloor troughs allow warm water to eat away at the ice from below, speeding shrinkage

Køge Bugt

RAPID RETREAT  New seafloor data reveal that Køge Bugt (shown) and other fast-retreating glaciers in southeastern Greenland sit within deep fjords, allowing warm Atlantic Ocean water to speed up melting.

Laurence Dyke

Greenland is melting rapidly, but some glaciers are disappearing faster than others. A new map of the surrounding seafloor helps explain why: Many of the fastest-melting glaciers sit atop deep fjords that allow Atlantic Ocean water to melt them from below.

Researchers led by glaciologist Romain Millan of the University of California, Irvine analyzed new oceanographic and topographic data for 20 major glaciers within 10 fjords in southeast Greenland. The mapping revealed that some fjords are several hundred meters deeper than simulations of the bathymetry suggested, the researchers report online March 25 in Geophysical Research Letters. These troughs allow warmer and saltier waters from deeper in the ocean to reach the glaciers and erode them.

Other glaciers are protected by shallow sills, or raised seafloor ledges. These sills act as barriers to the deep, warm water, the new seafloor maps show. The researchers compared their findings with observations of glacier melt from 1930 to 2017, and found that the fastest-melting glaciers tended to be those more exposed to melting from below.

ICE RETREAT In 1932 (left), the front of the Mogens North glacier extended farther seaward than it did in 2013 (right). New data reveal that the seafloor is much deeper beneath the glacier than thought. National History Museum of Copenhagen (L), Hans Henrik Tholstrup (R)

The study uses data from two NASA missions — Operation IceBridge, which measures ice thickness and gravity from aircraft, and Oceans Melting Greenland, or OMG, which uses sonar and gravity instruments to map the shape and depth of the seafloor close to the ice front. The OMG mission also involves dropping hundreds of probes into the ocean each year to measure temperature and salinity at different depths.

Scientists have long suspected Greenland’s melting may be accelerated by the ocean (SN Online: 7/6/11), but needed data on fjord depth and glacier thickness to prove it.

The high-resolution OMG datasets, in particular, reveal bumps and troughs in the seafloor that were previously unknown, says glaciologist Andy Aschwanden at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who was not involved with the study. “Those small details can make quite a difference to when a glacier will retreat.”

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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