So much about the planet’s future will depend on processes that humans today cannot directly observe — because they are occurring hundreds of meters below the sea surface where enormous marine glaciers, in Greenland and Antarctica, simultaneously touch the ocean and the seafloor.
The more we learn about this crucial yet inscrutable place, the more worrying it seems.
The latest exhibit: New research out of Greenland conducted by Dartmouth earth sciences Ph.D. student Kristin Schild and two university colleagues — work that has just been published in the Annals of Glaciology. The study examined the 5.5-kilometer-wide Rink Glacier of West Greenland, with particular focus on how meltwater on the ice sheet’s surface actually finds its way underneath Rink, pours out in the key undersea area described above and speeds up the glacier’s melt.
It’s a feedback process that, if it plays out across many other similarly situated glaciers, could greatly worsen Greenland’s overall ice loss. “These big tidewater outlet glaciers are the ones that are contributing these huge icebergs, they’re the ones that have rapidly, rapidly sped up in the last decade,” Schild said. This makes it critically important to learn “what are the main factors…that are leading to all these fast changes,” she added.
Greenland is an enormous sheet of ice, capable of raising sea levels by some 20 feet if it were somehow to melt entirely and its waters were to pour into the ocean. Fortunately, it can’t just do that all of a sudden — the vast ice sheet only reaches the ocean at relatively narrow, finger-like glaciers that stretch out into fjords, or underwater canyons that lead out to the sea.
There are nearly 200 of these large outlet glaciers overall — and as Greenland goes, Rink is fairly large in size but far from the largest. It’s less than 1 kilometer tall as it extends from the seafloor deep in a west Greenland fjord up above the surface of the water, Schild said.
That’s hardly as massive as the nearby Jakobshavn Glacier, which has a base submerged well over a kilometer below sea level — and which is sending ice out into the ocean faster than any other in Greenland. But Rink, like Jakobshavn, touches the ocean across a wide, icy front, and is grounded deep below the surface of the fjord’s waters. Here is where all the action is — including spectacular calving events, in which enormous icebergs break off, tumble into the water and eventually float out of the fjords.
There’s growing concern that warming ocean waters are snaking into these fjords at depth and lapping at the glacier bases, making such breakups more likely. It doesn’t help matters that scientists studiously mapping the fjords are finding, over and over again, that they’re deeper than previously believed, creating more opportunities for the warm ocean to trigger melting.
But the situation is even more dynamic: Amid warmer atmospheric temperatures, Greenland is also melting on its surface, a process that forms vanishing lakes, ice-banked rivers and downward channels, called moulins, that carry meltwater deep beneath the ice sheet. This water then makes its way to the bases of outlet glaciers and, after traveling through complex passageways and, perhaps, being held up or stored in icy caverns, eventually flows out from beneath them and enters the sea.
It’s the net consequence of all of these processes that will ultimately govern how quickly Greenland loses mass and causes the seas to rise. And that’s what the new study gets at: It attempts to measure the mysterious process by which Greenland’s surface meltwater eventually makes its way beneath the ice sheet and then out into fjords, by flowing to glacier fronts and escaping from underneath them.
To do so, the Dartmouth researchers used satellite imagery, as well as time lapse photography, to observe the seafront in the fjord where water touches Rink Glacier. They were searching for what they call “sediment plumes”: When water rushes out from the glacier base and into the fjord, it’s filled with sediments from the bedrock below. These pulses of water then ascend hundreds of meters to the surface and create an often colorful emergence there, as you can see in the NASA image below:
The study resulted in three separate new findings about how meltwater from Greenland’s surface is making its way under Rink Glacier and speeding its ice loss — each of which suggests that not only Rink, but other glaciers like it, could lose their ice faster than previously thought.
First of all, the satellite and time-lapse images revealed that meltwater is pouring out from beneath Rink Glacier in not just one but four separate locations. That’s bad news, because it means more overall melting of the glacier is possible. “Previously that has not been observed, to have more than one ocean location for a plume,” Schild said.
Each individual plume could be causing additional melting, Schild said. Here’s how it works: As the cold, fresh water rushes out from beneath the glacier, it cascades into ocean water that is saltier and warmer. So the cold water, being lighter, rises toward the surface hundreds of meters away — pulling the salty, warm water inward to fill the void that it leaves behind as it rises.
This doesn’t just bring more warm water toward the glacier — it does so in a turbulent way. “As it’s going up the front of the glacier, it kind of goes up in a corkscrew fashion,” Schild says. “It kind of creates a tornado as it goes up the front of this glacier, it’s bringing in that warm ocean water that then is hitting the terminus of the glacier.” This creates much more melting than would occur if the warm ocean water simply pressed steadily against the glacier front.
And that’s just one effect. The study also found that these meltwater plumes destabilize glacier fronts in another way. Over the winter in Greenland, the waters in front of glaciers develop a thick covering made up of sea ice and chunks of icebergs. This ice “melange,” as the researchers put it, freezes against the front of the glacier and acts to stabilize it.
But the meltwater plumes, the study showed, rise up early in the Greenland melt season and take chunks out of the ice melange. And no wonder — they mix with warm water as they rise to the surface, and so both their velocity and also their temperature helps break up the ice and set the stage for the glacier to start calving new icebergs.
And as if that’s not enough, the plume observations also led to yet another conclusion: There appear to be significant pockets of liquid water stored beneath Rink Glacier — water that does not freeze because of the incredible pressure that it’s under. And these pockets should also speed the glacier’s flow toward the sea — glaciers move much more rapidly atop water than they do when grinding against bedrock.
The scientists were able to infer the existence of these subglacial storage chambers based on the timing of the plumes, which continued to form more than 20 days after Greenland’s surface melting itself had ceased as summer came to a close. “As soon as it stops melting on the surface, we still see plumes up to almost a month later, coming out of the glacier,” Schild said. “And so that water is getting stuck, and it’s getting trapped underneath the glacier.”
The presumption, of course, is that while every glacier is different, similar processes could be playing out at many other glaciers besides Rink — including monsters like Jakobshavn.
If you put all these pieces together, then, you can begin to see why global warming can be so devastating to Greenland. It warms the ocean, allowing warmer seas to come visit marine glaciers — but it also warms the atmosphere, leading to melting high atop Greenland’s surface.
Each of these elements, on its own, is bad enough. But their combination is even more dastardly. In fjords at the base of glaciers, the cold water actually acts in concert with the warm to speed up total glacial loss. They’re kind of a dynamic duo.
And in the future, as climate change proceeds, there will be more of both of them.
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