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Thinning of the ice sheet in northwest Greenland over the past forty years


Thermal expansion of the oceans, as well as melting of glaciers, ice sheets and ice caps have been the main contributors to global sea level rise over the past century. The greatest uncertainty in predicting future sea level changes lies with our estimates of the mass balance of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica1. Satellite measurements have been used to determine changes in these ice sheets on short timescales, demonstrating that surface-elevation changes on timescales of decades or less result mainly from variations in snow accumulation2. Here we present direct measurements of the changes in surface elevation between 1954 and 1995 on a traverse across the north Greenland ice sheet. Measurements over a time interval of this length should reflect changes in ice flow—the important quantity for predicting changes in sea level—relatively unperturbed by short-term fluctuations in snow accumulation. We find only small changes in the eastern part of the transect, except for some thickening of the north ice stream. On the west side, however, the thinning rates of the ice sheet are significantly higher and thinning extends to higher elevations than had been anticipated from previous studies3.

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Figure 1: Traverse route.
Figure 2: Measured changes in surface elevation between 1954 and 1995.

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We thank J. Bamber, S. Ekholm, W. Krabill and E. Mosley-Thompson for providing information and unpublished data.

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Correspondence to Niels Reeh.

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Paterson, W., Reeh, N. Thinning of the ice sheet in northwest Greenland over the past forty years. Nature 414, 60–62 (2001).

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