North Atlantic warming and the retreat of Greenland's outlet glaciers


Mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet quadrupled over the past two decades, contributing a quarter of the observed global sea-level rise. Increased submarine melting is thought to have triggered the retreat of Greenland's outlet glaciers, which is partly responsible for the ice loss. However, the chain of events and physical processes remain elusive. Recent evidence suggests that an anomalous inflow of subtropical waters driven by atmospheric changes, multidecadal natural ocean variability and a long-term increase in the North Atlantic's upper ocean heat content since the 1950s all contributed to a warming of the subpolar North Atlantic. This led, in conjunction with increased runoff, to enhanced submarine glacier melting. Future climate projections raise the potential for continued increases in warming and ice-mass loss, with implications for sea level and climate.

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Figure 1: Retreat of Greenland's outlet glaciers is occurring at a time when the waters of the subpolar North Atlantic are the warmest on record.
Figure 2: Retreat and thinning of Greenland's outlet glaciers.


Figure 3: Thinning of the Greenland ice sheet is concentrated at the margins of the subpolar North Atlantic.
Figure 4: Fjord and continental shelf exchanges.
Figure 5: Submarine melting.


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Part of the work discussed here benefited from discussions within the US CLIVAR Working Group on Greenland Ice Sheet–Ocean Interactions (GRISO). US CLIVAR and its sponsoring agencies are thanked for supporting a workshop on this subject held in Beverly, Massachusetts, from June 4–7, 2013. P.H. gratefully acknowledges core support through the Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Oceans (ECCO) project, and supplemental funding from NASA, NSF, DOE and NOAA. F.S. gratefully acknowledges funding from NSF, NASA and WHOI's OCCI.

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Straneo, F., Heimbach, P. North Atlantic warming and the retreat of Greenland's outlet glaciers. Nature 504, 36–43 (2013).

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