Mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet contributes significantly to present sea level rise1. High meltwater runoff is responsible for half of Greenland’s mass loss2. Surface melt has been spreading and intensifying in Greenland, with the highest ever surface area melt and runoff recorded in 20123. However, how surface melt water reaches the ocean, and how fast it does so, is poorly understood. Firn—partially compacted snow from previous years—potentially has the capacity to store significant amounts of melt water in liquid or frozen form4, and thus delay its contribution to sea level. Here we present direct observations from ground and airborne radar, as well as ice cores, of liquid water within firn in the southern Greenland ice sheet. We find a substantial amount of water in this firn aquifer that persists throughout the winter, when snow accumulation and melt rates are high. This represents a previously unknown storage mode for water within the ice sheet. We estimate, using a regional climate model, aquifer area at about 70,000 km2 and the depth to the top of the water table as 5–50 m. The perennial firn aquifer could be important for estimates of ice sheet mass and energy budget.
At a glance
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