Sustained mass loss of the northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online


The Greenland ice sheet has been one of the largest contributors to global sea-level rise over the past 20 years, accounting for 0.5 mm yr−1 of a total of 3.2 mm yr−1. A significant portion of this contribution is associated with the speed-up of an increased number of glaciers in southeast and northwest Greenland. Here, we show that the northeast Greenland ice stream, which extends more than 600 km into the interior of the ice sheet, is now undergoing sustained dynamic thinning, linked to regional warming, after more than a quarter of a century of stability. This sector of the Greenland ice sheet is of particular interest, because the drainage basin area covers 16% of the ice sheet (twice that of Jakobshavn Isbræ) and numerical model predictions suggest no significant mass loss for this sector, leading to an under-estimation of future global sea-level rise. The geometry of the bedrock and monotonic trend in glacier speed-up and mass loss suggests that dynamic drawdown of ice in this region will continue in the near future.

At a glance


  1. Changes in surface elevations obtained using ICESat, ATM, LVIS and ENVISAT data (Supplementary Section 1.0).
    Figure 1: Changes in surface elevations obtained using ICESat, ATM, LVIS and ENVISAT data (Supplementary Section 1.0).

    a–c, Ice surface elevation change rates in m yr−1 from April 2003 to April 2006 (a), April 2006 to April 2009 (b) and April 2009 to April 2012 (c).

  2. Surface speed, mass loss rates and climate data.
    Figure 2: Surface speed, mass loss rates and climate data.

    a, colours indicate ice speed in m yr−1 during winter 2008–2009 (Supplementary Information). Triangles denote locations of GPS stations and their vertical accelerations in mm yr−2. Squares and crosses denote locations of ocean and meteorological points, respectively. b, Ice mass rate from 1978 to 2012, grey shaded vertical bars represent three-year intervals (2003–2006, 2006–2009, 2009–2012) from April to April. c, Subsurface water temperature anomaly in °C after removing the 1961–1990 baseline. d, Sea surface temperature anomaly in °C after removing the 1961–1990 baseline. e, Mean summer air temperature in °C. JJA: June, July August. f, Red time series represents Danmarkshavn (DH), purple time series represents HKH, mean annual air temperature in °C. Each coloured line in cf corresponds to a coloured square or cross in a.

  3. Surface elevation change rates in northeast Greenland using aerial photographs, ICESat, ATM, LVIS and ENVISAT data.
    Figure 3: Surface elevation change rates in northeast Greenland using aerial photographs, ICESat, ATM, LVIS and ENVISAT data.

    a–d, Observed ice surface elevation change rates in m yr−1 during August 1978–April 2003 (a), April 2003–April 2006 (b), April 2006–April 2009 (c) and April 2009–April 2012 (d). e–h, Total elevation change rates in m yr−1 owing to SMB fluctuations using regional climate model RACMO2 including firn compaction during August 1978–April 2003 (e), April 2003–April 2006 (f), April 2006–April 2009 (g) and April 2009–April 2012 (h). i–l,  Dynamically driven elevation change rates in m yr−1 during August 1978-April 2003 (i), April 2003–April 2006 (j), April 2006–April 2009 (k) and April 2009–April 2012 (l).

  4. Calving front positions, bed and velocity profiles along the main flow line of NG and ZI.
    Figure 4: Calving front positions, bed and velocity profiles along the main flow line of NG and ZI.

    a–b, Calving front positions of NG (a) and of ZI (b). c, Bed elevation in m. The solid lines denote main flow lines on NG and ZI. The dashed line denotes a transect from ZI’s 2011 calving front in a northeast direction. Red lines denote flux gates locations. The axes display easting and northing coordinates in km for Universal Transverse Mercator zone 24. d, Top: bed and ice surface elevation above sea level along transect 1. Bottom: change in ice speed along transect 1 for various years relative to winter 2000/2001. e, Top: bed and ice surface elevation along transect 2. Bottom: change in ice speed for various years along transect 2.

  5. Sea ice concentration along the northeast Greenland coast.
    Figure 5: Sea ice concentration along the northeast Greenland coast.

    Sea ice concentration (%) for September each year from 1979 to 2011. The sea ice grid resolution is 25 × 25 km.


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Author information


  1. DTU Space, National Space Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Department of Geodesy, Kgs. Lyngby 2800, Denmark

    • Shfaqat A. Khan &
    • Ioana S. Muresan
  2. Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen 1350, Denmark

    • Kurt H. Kjær,
    • Kristian K. Kjeldsen,
    • Anders A. Bjørk &
    • Niels J. Korsgaard
  3. Geodetic Science, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210, USA

    • Michael Bevis
  4. Bristol Glaciology Centre, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • Jonathan L. Bamber
  5. Department of Physics and Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • John Wahr
  6. Department of Geology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, USA

    • Leigh A. Stearns
  7. Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht University, Utrecht 80005, The Netherlands

    • Michiel R. van den Broeke
  8. Department of Geophysics, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Lin Liu
  9. Department of Geoscience, Aarhus University, Aarhus 8000, Denmark

    • Nicolaj K. Larsen
  10. Present address: Earth System Science Programme, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

    • Lin Liu


S.A.K. led the writing of the paper and conceived the study. S.A.K. analysed ENVISAT, ICESat, ATM, LVIS data surface and subsurface ocean temperatures. S.A.K. analysed GPS data. J.W. analysed GRACE data. A.A.B. analysed air temperature and glacier front positions. M.R.v.d.B. analysed SMB data. N.J.K. analysed 1978 aerial photographs. All authors contributed to data interpretation and writing of the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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