A surprising heat source is melting the Greenland Ice Sheet from the bottom up

Melt rates measured at the base of the ice sheet are several orders of magnitude higher than previous estimates

water flowing into crack in glacier
Water from a lake on the surface of Store Glacier flows into a “moulin” and down to the base of the glacier more than a kilometer below. (Photo by Poul Christoffersen)
front of Store glacier
Store Glacier, a major glacier in West Greenland, is 5 kilometers wide at the ice front. (Photo by Poul Christoffersen)
drill site on glacier
Aerial view of a research site on Store Glacier, Greenland, captured by drone. (Credit: Tom Chudley)
tents by lake on ice
Tents by a meltwater lake on Store Glacier. (Photo by Tom Chudley)
researchers on ice at sunset
Studies of meltwater on Store Glacier are part of the EU-funded RESPONDER project. (Photo by Poul Christoffersen)

Researchers have observed extremely high rates of melting at the bottom of the Greenland Ice Sheet, caused by huge quantities of meltwater descending from the surface to the base. As the meltwater descends, gravitational energy is converted into heat in a process that was predicted to occur in a theoretical paper published five years ago by UC Santa Cruz scientists.

In the new study, an international team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge found that the effect of meltwater descending from the surface of the ice sheet down to the bed—a kilometer or more below—is by far the largest heat source beneath the world’s second-largest ice sheet, leading to phenomenally high rates of melting at its base. They reported their findings in a paper published February 21 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new findings support earlier calculations (published in Cryosphere in 2017) by Slawek Tulaczyk, professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and Kenneth Mankoff, then a UCSC graduate student and now at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. Both are coauthors of the new study.

“We made theoretical calculations based on other people’s estimates of the amount of meltwater on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet and its elevation, roughly half a mile to a mile above sea level, which we realized represents a lot of gravitational energy,” Tulaczyk said.

The gravitational energy of meltwater forming at the surface is converted to heat as the water flows through large cracks in the ice down to the base of the ice sheet. The lubricating effect of basal meltwater has a strong effect on the movement of glaciers and the quantity of ice discharged into the ocean, but directly measuring conditions beneath a kilometer of ice is a challenge, especially in Greenland where glaciers are among the world’s fastest moving.

This lack of direct measurements makes it difficult to understand the dynamic behavior of the Greenland Ice Sheet and predict future changes. With ice losses tied to both melting and discharge, the Greenland Ice Sheet is now the largest single contributor to global sea level rise.

Each summer, thousands of meltwater lakes and streams form on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet as temperatures rise and daily sunlight increases. Many of these lakes quickly drain to the bottom of the ice sheet, falling through cracks and large fractures in the ice. With a continued supply of water from streams and rivers, connections between surface and bed often remain open.

As part of the EU-funded RESPONDER project, corresponding author Poul Christoffersen from Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute has been studying these meltwater lakes, how and why they drain so quickly, and the effect that they have on the overall behavior of the ice sheet as global temperatures continue to rise.

The current work is the culmination of a study that spans seven years and focuses on Store Glacier, one of the largest outlets from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

“When studying basal melting of ice sheets and glaciers, we look at sources of heat like friction, geothermal energy, latent heat released where water freezes, and heat losses into the ice above,” said Christoffersen. “But what we hadn’t really looked at was the heat generated by the draining meltwater itself. There’s an awful lot of gravitational energy stored in the water that forms on the surface and when it falls, the energy has to go somewhere.”

To measure basal melt rates, the researchers used phase-sensitive radio-echo sounding, a technique developed at the British Antarctic Survey and used previously on floating ice sheets in Antarctica.

“We weren’t sure that the technique would also work on a fast-flowing glacier in Greenland,” said first author Tun Jan Young, who installed the radar system on Store Glacier as part of his Ph.D. at Cambridge. “Compared to Antarctica, the ice deforms really fast and there is a lot of meltwater in summer, which sometimes complicates the work.”

The basal melt rates observed with radar were often as high as the melt rates measured on the surface with a weather station, a stunning observation considering that the surface receives energy from the sun while the base does not. To explain the results, the Cambridge researchers teamed up with Tulaczyk and Mankoff. (Christoffersen had done postdoctoral research with Tulaczyk at UCSC in 2003-04.)

“Poul of course was familiar with our paper and concluded that they were seeing the effect of what we had theorized,” Tulaczyk said. “The new paper includes a regional version of the calculations we had done earlier for the whole ice sheet.”

The team calculated that as much as 82 million cubic meters of meltwater was transferred to the bed of Store Glacier every day during the summer of 2014. They estimate that the power produced by the falling water during peak melt periods was comparable to the power produced by the Three Gorges Dam in China, the world’s largest hydroelectric power station. With a melt area that expands to nearly a million square kilometers in total during peak melt, the Greenland Ice Sheet produces more hydropower than the world’s ten largest hydroelectric power stations combined.

“Given what we are witnessing at the high latitudes in terms of climate change, this rate could easily double or triple, and we’re still not even including these numbers when we estimate the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level rise,” said Christoffersen.

To verify the high basal melt rates recorded by the radar system, the team integrated independent temperature measurements from sensors installed in a nearby borehole. At the base, they found the temperature of water to be as high as +0.88 degrees Celsius, which is unexpectedly warm for an ice sheet base with a melting point of -0.40 degrees.

“The borehole observations confirmed that the meltwater heats up when it hits the bed,” said Christoffersen. “The reason is that the basal drainage system is a lot less efficient than the fractures and conduits that bring the water through the ice. The reduced drainage efficiency causes frictional heating within the water itself. When we took this heat source out of our calculations, the theoretical melt rate estimates were a full two orders of magnitude out. The heat generated by the falling water is melting the ice from the bottom up, and the melt rate we are reporting is completely unprecedented.”

The study presents the first concrete evidence of an ice-sheet mass-loss mechanism not yet included in projections of global sea level rise. While the high melt rates are specific to heat produced in subglacial drainage paths carrying surface water, the volume of surface water produced in Greenland is huge and growing, and nearly all of it drains to the bed.

This research was supported in part by the European Union and the European Research Council.