Greenland’s contribution to future sea-level rise remains uncertain and a wide range of upper and lower bounds has been proposed. These predictions depend strongly on how mass loss—which is focused at the termini of marine-terminating outlet glaciers—can penetrate inland to the ice-sheet interior. Previous studies have shown that, at regional scales, Greenland ice sheet mass loss is correlated with atmospheric and oceanic warming. However, mass loss within individual outlet glacier catchments exhibits unexplained heterogeneity, hindering our ability to project ice-sheet response to future environmental forcing. Using digital elevation model differencing, we spatially resolve the dynamic portion of surface elevation change from 1985 to present within 16 outlet glacier catchments in West Greenland, where significant heterogeneity in ice loss exists. We show that the up-glacier extent of thinning and, thus, mass loss, is limited by glacier geometry. We find that 94% of the total dynamic loss occurs between the terminus and the location where the down-glacier advective speed of a kinematic wave of thinning is at least three times larger than its diffusive speed. This empirical threshold enables the identification of glaciers that are not currently thinning but are most susceptible to future thinning in the coming decades.
At a glance
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