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Large fluctuations in speed on Greenland's Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier


It is important to understand recent changes in the velocity of Greenland glaciers because the mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet is partly determined by the flow rates of these outlets. Jakobshavn Isbræ is Greenland's largest outlet glacier1, draining about 6.5 per cent of the ice-sheet area, and it has been surveyed repeatedly since 1991 (ref. 2). Here we use remote sensing data to measure the velocity of Jakobshavn Isbræ between 1992 and 2003. We detect large variability of the velocity over time, including a slowing down from 6,700 m yr-1 in 1985 to 5,700 m yr-1 in 1992, and a subsequent speeding up to 9,400 m yr-1 by 2000 and 12,600 m yr-1 in 2003. These changes are consistent with earlier evidence for thickening of the glacier in the early 1990s and rapid thinning thereafter3. Our observations indicate that fast-flowing glaciers can significantly alter ice discharge at sub-decadal timescales, with at least a potential to respond rapidly to a changing climate.

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Figure 1: Ice-flow speed as colour over SAR amplitude imagery of Jakobshavn Isbræ in February 1992 (a) and October 2000 (b).
Figure 2: Profiles of speckle-tracked (see Methods), Landsat, airborne feature-tracked speed from along the line shown in Fig. 1a and as a function of distance from the approximate position of the 1992 calving front.
Figure 3: Average speeds versus time for measurements made at original 1985 and 1997 airborne survey locations (same-colour symbols in Fig. 1).


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This work was supported by the Cryospheric Sciences Program of NASA's Earth Science Enterprise. I.J. performed his contribution at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. We thank H. Brecher for the 1985 velocity data and B. Csatho, K. In Huh and S. Manizade for acquiring and orthorectifying the Landsat imagery. Radarsat data were provided by CSA through ASF and ERS SAR data were provided by ESA through the VECTRA project.Author contributions All authors contributed equally to this work.

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Joughin, I., Abdalati, W. & Fahnestock, M. Large fluctuations in speed on Greenland's Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier. Nature 432, 608–610 (2004).

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