Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Holocene thinning of the Greenland ice sheet


On entering an era of global warming, the stability of the Greenland ice sheet (GIS) is an important concern1, especially in the light of new evidence of rapidly changing flow and melt conditions at the GIS margins2. Studying the response of the GIS to past climatic change may help to advance our understanding of GIS dynamics. The previous interpretation of evidence from stable isotopes (δ18O) in water from GIS ice cores was that Holocene climate variability on the GIS differed spatially3 and that a consistent Holocene climate optimum—the unusually warm period from about 9,000 to 6,000 years ago found in many northern-latitude palaeoclimate records4—did not exist. Here we extract both the Greenland Holocene temperature history and the evolution of GIS surface elevation at four GIS locations. We achieve this by comparing δ18O from GIS ice cores3,5 with δ18O from ice cores from small marginal icecaps. Contrary to the earlier interpretation of δ18O evidence from ice cores3,6, our new temperature history reveals a pronounced Holocene climatic optimum in Greenland coinciding with maximum thinning near the GIS margins. Our δ18O-based results are corroborated by the air content of ice cores, a proxy for surface elevation7. State-of-the-art ice sheet models are generally found to be underestimating the extent and changes in GIS elevation and area; our findings may help to improve the ability of models to reproduce the GIS response to Holocene climate.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Holocene δ 18 O records.
Figure 2: Holocene elevation change histories for Greenland ice sheet locations.
Figure 3: Empirical and modelled Holocene elevation change histories for the summit of the Greenland ice sheet.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Alley, R. B. et al. Ice-sheet and sea-level changes. Science 310, 456–460 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Rignot, E. & Kanagaratnam, P. Changes in the velocity structure of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Science 311, 986–990 (2006)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Johnsen, S. J. & Vinther, B. M. in Encyclopedia of Quaternary Science (ed. Elias, S.) Vol., 2 1250–1258 (Elsevier, 2007)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  4. Kaufman, D. S. et al. Holocene thermal maximum in the western Arctic (0–180°W). Quat. Sci. Rev. 23, 529–560 (2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Fisher, D. A. et al. Inter-comparison of ice core δ18O and precipitation records from sites in Canada and Greenland over the last 3500 years and over the last few centuries in detail using EOF techniques. NATO ASI Ser. 141, 297–328 (1996)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Masson-Delmotte, V. et al. Holocene climatic changes in Greenland: different deuterium excess signals at Greenland Ice Core Project (GRIP) and NorthGRIP. J. Geophys. Res. 110, D14102 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Raynaud, D. & Lorius, C. Climatic implications of total gas content in ice at Camp Century. Nature 243, 283–284 (1973)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Koerner, R. M. & Fisher, D. A. A record of Holocene summer climate from a Canadian high-Arctic ice core. Nature 343, 630–632 (1990)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  9. Rasmussen, S. O. et al. A new Greenland ice core chronology for the last glacial termination. J. Geophys. Res. 111, D06102 10.1029/2005JD006079 (2006)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Vinther, B. M. et al. A synchronized dating of three Greenland ice cores throughout the Holocene. J. Geophys. Res. 111 D13102 10.1029/2005JD006921 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Vinther, B. M. et al. Synchronizing ice cores from the Renland and Agassiz ice caps to the Greenland Ice Core Chronology. J. Geophys. Res. 113 D08115 10.1029/2007JD009143 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Hammer, C. U. et al. Greenland ice sheet evidence of post-glacial volcanism and its climatic impact. Nature 288, 230–235 (1980)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Cuffey, K. M. & Clow, G. D. Temperature, accumulation, and ice sheet elevation in central Greenland through the last deglacial transition. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 26383–26396 (1997)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Johnsen, S. J. et al. A deep ice core from east Greenland. Meddr Grønl. 29, 3–29 (1992)

    Google Scholar 

  15. Blake, W. Studies of glacial history in Arctic Canada. I. Pumice, radiocarbon dates and differential post-glacial uplift in the eastern Queen Elizabeth Islands. Can. J. Earth Sci. 7, 634–664 (1970)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Funder, S. Holocene stratigraphy and vegetation history in the Scoresby Sund area, East Greenland. Grønl. Geol. Unders. Bull. 129 (1978)

  17. Dyke, A. S. & Peltier, W. R. Forms, response times and variability of relative sea-level curves, glaciated North America. Geomorphology 32, 315–333 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Laskar, J. et al. A long term numerical solution for the insolation quantities of Earth. Astron. Astrophys. 428, 261–285 (2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Buchardt, S. L. & Dahl-Jensen, D. Estimating the basal melt rate at NorthGRIP using a Monte Carlo technique. Ann. Glaciol. 45, 137–142 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. Reeh, N. et al. Dating the Dye-3 ice core by flow model calculations. Am. Geophys. Un. Geophys. Monogr. 33, 57–65 (1985)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Raynaud, D. et al. Air content along the Greenland Ice Core Project core: a record of surface climatic parameters and elevation in central Greenland. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 26607–26613 (1997)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. Waelbroeck, C. et al. Sea-level and deep water temperature changes derived from benthic foraminifera isotopic records. Quat. Sci. Rev. 21, 295–305 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Dahl-Jensen, D. et al. Past temperatures directly from the Greenland ice sheet. Science 282, 268–271 (1998)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Blake, W. & Jr Glaciated landscapes along Smith Sound, Ellesmere Island, Canada and Greenland. Ann. Glaciol. 28, 40–46 (1999)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Long, A. J. et al. Late Weichselian relative sea-level changes and ice sheet history in southeast Greenland. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 272, 8–18 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Johnsen, S. J. et al. Greenland palaeotemperatures derived from GRIP bore hole temperature and ice core isotope profiles. Tellus B 47, 624–629 (1995)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Huybrechts, P. Sea-level changes at the LGM from ice-dynamic reconstructions of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets during the glacial cycles. Quat. Sci. Rev. 21, 203–231 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. Tarasov, L. & Peltier, W. R. Greenland glacial history, borehole constraints and Eemian extent. J. Geophys. Res. 108 (B3). 2124–2143 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Greve, R. Relation of measured basal temperatures and the spatial distribution of the geothermal heat flux for the Greenland ice sheet. Ann. Glaciol. 42, 424–432 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Lhomme, N. et al. Tracer transport in the Greenland Ice Sheet: constraints on ice cores and glacial history. Quat. Sci. Rev. 24, 173–194 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank laboratory technician A. Boas, who meticulously performed most of the stable-isotope measurements presented in this paper during her 38 years at the Copenhagen stable isotope laboratory; W. Blake Jr for providing his insight, suggestions and corrections during the drafting of this paper; R. Greve for providing elevation data from his GIS modelling effort. B.M.V. thanks the Carlsberg Foundation for funding, and the Climatic Research Unit at University of East Anglia for hosting his research during all of 2007. V.L. and D.R. thank the Groupement de Recherche Européen (GDRE) Vostok (Institut national des sciences de l’Univers (INSU)/Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) for funding and Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR)–CNRS grant 05-05-66801) for support.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to B. M. Vinther.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Figures S1-S4 with Legends, Supplementary Tables S1-S2 and Supplementary References. (PDF 483 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Vinther, B., Buchardt, S., Clausen, H. et al. Holocene thinning of the Greenland ice sheet. Nature 461, 385–388 (2009).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing