Future sea-level rise from Greenland’s main outlet glaciers in a warming climate


Over the past decade, ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet increased as a result of both increased surface melting and ice discharge to the ocean1,2. The latter is controlled by the acceleration of ice flow and subsequent thinning of fast-flowing marine-terminating outlet glaciers3. Quantifying the future dynamic contribution of such glaciers to sea-level rise (SLR) remains a major challenge because outlet glacier dynamics are poorly understood4. Here we present a glacier flow model that includes a fully dynamic treatment of marine termini. We use this model to simulate behaviour of four major marine-terminating outlet glaciers, which collectively drain about 22 per cent of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Using atmospheric and oceanic forcing from a mid-range future warming scenario that predicts warming by 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, we project a contribution of 19 to 30 millimetres to SLR from these glaciers by 2200. This contribution is largely (80 per cent) dynamic in origin and is caused by several episodic retreats past overdeepenings in outlet glacier troughs. After initial increases, however, dynamic losses from these four outlets remain relatively constant and contribute to SLR individually at rates of about 0.01 to 0.06 millimetres per year. These rates correspond to ice fluxes that are less than twice those of the late 1990s, well below previous upper bounds5. For a more extreme future warming scenario (warming by 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100), the projected losses increase by more than 50 per cent, producing a cumulative SLR of 29 to 49 millimetres by 2200.

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Figure 1: Major Greenland outlet glaciers examined in this study.
Figure 2: Modelled evolution of surface elevation and velocity.
Figure 3: Projected SLR from the four major outlet glaciers.


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This research was financially supported by the ice2sea programme of the European Union 7th Framework Programme, grant number 226375 (ice2sea publication 118), and the Netherlands Polar Programme (NPP), and contributes to the Knowledge for Climate (KvK) programme in the Netherlands. The ENSEMBLES data used in this work was funded by the European Union 6th Framework Programme Integrated Project ENSEMBLES (contract number 505539). Support for I.J. was provided by US NSF grant ANT-0424589.

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F.M.N., A.V. and M.L.A. were responsible for the numerical modelling. A.P., T.L.E. and I.J. provided the climate and observational data. F.P. and R.S.W.v.d.W. are the principal investigators of the projects of which this research is part. F.P. contributed to the model refinement. F.M.N. wrote the manuscript with substantial contributions from A.V., M.L.A. and I.J.

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Correspondence to Faezeh M. Nick.

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Supplementary Information

This file contains 6 Supplementary Sections, which include Supplementary Figures 1-13 and Supplementary Tables 1-2. It provides a description of climate input data used to force the model (S1, Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Figures 1-2), detailed information about the model (S2), forcing parameters (S3), model calibration (S4, Supplementary Figures 3-6 and Supplementary Table 2), glacier sensitivity to forcing parameters and future behaviour of each glacier (S6, Supplementary Figures 7-13). (PDF 2800 kb)

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Nick, F., Vieli, A., Andersen, M. et al. Future sea-level rise from Greenland’s main outlet glaciers in a warming climate. Nature 497, 235–238 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12068

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