Future sea-level rise from Greenland’s main outlet glaciers in a warming climate

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Over the past decade, ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet increased as a result of both increased surface melting and ice discharge to the ocean1, 2. The latter is controlled by the acceleration of ice flow and subsequent thinning of fast-flowing marine-terminating outlet glaciers3. Quantifying the future dynamic contribution of such glaciers to sea-level rise (SLR) remains a major challenge because outlet glacier dynamics are poorly understood4. Here we present a glacier flow model that includes a fully dynamic treatment of marine termini. We use this model to simulate behaviour of four major marine-terminating outlet glaciers, which collectively drain about 22 per cent of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Using atmospheric and oceanic forcing from a mid-range future warming scenario that predicts warming by 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, we project a contribution of 19 to 30 millimetres to SLR from these glaciers by 2200. This contribution is largely (80 per cent) dynamic in origin and is caused by several episodic retreats past overdeepenings in outlet glacier troughs. After initial increases, however, dynamic losses from these four outlets remain relatively constant and contribute to SLR individually at rates of about 0.01 to 0.06 millimetres per year. These rates correspond to ice fluxes that are less than twice those of the late 1990s, well below previous upper bounds5. For a more extreme future warming scenario (warming by 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100), the projected losses increase by more than 50 per cent, producing a cumulative SLR of 29 to 49 millimetres by 2200.

At a glance


  1. Major Greenland outlet glaciers examined in this study.
    Figure 1: Major Greenland outlet glaciers examined in this study.

    Catchments for glaciers in this study are highlighted on the velocity map of Greenland8. Jakobshavn Isbræ in the west, drains ~7.5% of the Greenland Ice Sheet area. Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier in the southeast, drain about 3.9% and 4.2%, respectively. Petermann Glacier, in the north, drains ~6% of the ice sheet area.

  2. Modelled evolution of surface elevation and velocity.
    Figure 2: Modelled evolution of surface elevation and velocity.

    Along-flow profiles of surface elevation (red lines) and velocity (green lines) of Helheim (a), Kangerdlugssuaq (b), Petermann (c) and Jakobshavn (d) glaciers for one of the high-mass-loss sets. The profiles are shown at 1-yr intervals during 2000–2010 and at 10-yr intervals during 2010–2200. The profiles are colour coded and range from black (2000) to red and green (2200), as appropriate.

  3. Projected SLR from the four major outlet glaciers.
    Figure 3: Projected SLR from the four major outlet glaciers.

    Modelled cumulative total mass change (black), cumulative SMB anomalies (red) and dynamic mass change anomalies (dashed blue) at Helheim (a), Kangerdlugssuaq (b), Petermann (c) and Jakobshavn (d) glaciers for selected forcing parameter sets. e, Predicted cumulative minimum and maximum total SLR contributions from four major outlet glaciers forced by A1B (black) and RCP8.5 (yellow) future warming scenarios. Also, shown are the contributions from SMB for A1B (red) and RCP8.5 (orange) and from dynamic retreat and thinning for A1B (dashed blue) and RCP8.5 (dash–dot green). Shaded areas cover the range of projected SLR for all selected forcing parameter sets.


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Author information


  1. Laboratoire de Glaciologie, Université Libre de Bruxelles, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium

    • Faezeh M. Nick &
    • Frank Pattyn
  2. Institute for Marine and Atmospheric research, Utrecht University, 3508 TA Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Faezeh M. Nick &
    • Roderik S. W. van de Wal
  3. Department of Geology, The University Centre in Svalbard, PO Box 156, NO-9171 Longyearbyen, Norway

    • Faezeh M. Nick
  4. Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, UK

    • Andreas Vieli
  5. Department of Geography, University of Zürich, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Andreas Vieli
  6. Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, DK-1350 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Morten Langer Andersen
  7. Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98108, USA

    • Ian Joughin
  8. Bristol Glaciology Centre, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • Antony Payne &
    • Tamsin L. Edwards


F.M.N., A.V. and M.L.A. were responsible for the numerical modelling. A.P., T.L.E. and I.J. provided the climate and observational data. F.P. and R.S.W.v.d.W. are the principal investigators of the projects of which this research is part. F.P. contributed to the model refinement. F.M.N. wrote the manuscript with substantial contributions from A.V., M.L.A. and I.J.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (2.7 MB)

    This file contains 6 Supplementary Sections, which include Supplementary Figures 1-13 and Supplementary Tables 1-2. It provides a description of climate input data used to force the model (S1, Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Figures 1-2), detailed information about the model (S2), forcing parameters (S3), model calibration (S4, Supplementary Figures 3-6 and Supplementary Table 2), glacier sensitivity to forcing parameters and future behaviour of each glacier (S6, Supplementary Figures 7-13).


  1. Report this comment #58344

    Arno Arrak said:

    These models are jiggered to line up their results with observations but they are totally unrealistic because they've got the physics all wrong. Arctic warming is not greenhouse warming and never was since its inception at the turn of the twentieth century. I proved that in my article in 2011 1 but these so-called experts on the Arctic find it too much to do their homework and read the literature. Prior to the start of this warming there was nothing there but two thousand years of slow cooling. The warming started suddenly at the turn of the century, paused for thirty years in mid-century, then resumed, and is still going strong. Its beginning was sudden and there was no parallel increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It follows from the laws of radiation physics that it cannot be caused by the greenhouse effect. The only logical cause for this warming is a rearrangement of the North Atlantic current system at the turn of the century which started to carry warm water into the Arctic. The logical source of this warm water is the Gulf Stream. Arctic warming paused from 1940 to 1970, most likely because of a temporary return of the previous flow pattern of currents. This observation is important because what has happened before can happen again. A return of such cooling would have huge implicatioins for the exploitation of Arctic resources. There are numerous observations of Arctic warming from the twenties to the 2000s. Most recently Spielhagen et al. 2 measured water temperature directly and took Foraminiferal cores near Svalbard. They found that temperature of water reaching the Arctic today exceeds anything within the last two thousand years.Thanks to these warm currents the Arctic today is the only part of the world that is still warming. As is well known global warming has has been on hold for the last 15 years as even Pachouri of the IPCC has reluctantly admitted. The atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration today is the highest ever and more is added daily. But sad to say for all climatists, it has gone on strike and refuses to do its warming thing. The question to ask is whether it ever caused any warming anywhere. The short answer is no. The explanation is Ferenc Miskolczi 3. In 2010 he studied the absorption of infrared radiation by the atmosphere using NOAA database of weather balloon observations that goes back to 1948. He found that the absorption of IR had been constant for 61 years while carbon dioxide at the same time increased by 21.6 percent. This substantial addition of CO2 had no effect on the absorption of IR by the atmosphere. And no absorption means no greenhouse effect, case closed. This is an empirical observation of nature, not derived from any theory, and it overrides any calculations from theory that do not agree with it. It specifically invalidates all climate models that utilize the greenhouse effect to predict warming.

    1 Arno Arrak, "Arctic warming is not greenhouse warming," Energy & Environment, volume 22, issue 8, pp.1069-1083 (2011)
    2 Spielhagen et al., "Enhanced Modern Heat Transfer to the Arctic by Warm Atlantic Water," Science, 332:450-453 (28 January 2011)
    3 Ferenc M. Miskolczi, "The stable stationary value of the Earth's global average atmospheric Planck-weighted greenhouse-gas optical thickness," Energy & Environment volume 21 issue 4, pp. 243-262 (2010)

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