In a warming climate, surface meltwater production on large ice sheets is expected to increase. If this water is delivered to the ice sheet base it may have important consequences for ice dynamics. For example, basal water distributed in a diffuse network can decrease basal friction1,2 and accelerate ice flow3,4,5,6,7,8, whereas channelized basal water can move quickly to the ice margin, where it can alter fjord circulation and submarine melt rates9,10. Less certain is whether surface meltwater can be trapped and stored in subglacial lakes beneath large ice sheets. Here we show that a subglacial lake in Greenland drained quickly, as seen in the collapse of the ice surface, and then refilled from surface meltwater input. We use digital elevation models from stereo satellite imagery and airborne measurements to resolve elevation changes during the evolution of the surface and basal hydrologic systems at the Flade Isblink ice cap in northeast Greenland. During the autumn of 2011, a collapse basin about 70 metres deep and about 0.4 cubic kilometres in volume formed near the southern summit of the ice cap as a subglacial lake drained into a nearby fjord. Over the next two years, rapid uplift of the floor of the basin (which is approximately 8.4 square kilometres in area) occurred as surface meltwater flowed into crevasses around the basin margin and refilled the subglacial lake. Our observations show that surface meltwater can be trapped and stored at the bed of an ice sheet. Sensible and latent heat released by this trapped meltwater could soften nearby colder basal ice11 and alter downstream ice dynamics12,13. Heat transport associated with meltwater trapped in subglacial lakes should be considered when predicting how ice sheet behaviour will change in a warming climate.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Nature Communications Open Access 26 June 2019
Scientific Reports Open Access 03 April 2019
Nature Communications Open Access 13 June 2016
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Iken, A. & Bindschadler, R. Combined measurements of subglacial water pressure and surface velocity of Findelengletscher, Switzerland: conclusions about drainage system and sliding mechanism. J. Glaciol. 32, 101–119 (1986)
Zwally, H. J. et al. Surface melt-induced acceleration of Greenland Ice-Sheet flow. Science 297, 218–222 (2002)
Schoof, C. Ice-sheet acceleration driven by melt supply variability. Nature 468, 803–806 (2010)
Stearns, L. A., Smith, B. E. & Hamilton, G. S. Increased flow speed on a large East Antarctic outlet glacier caused by subglacial floods. Nature Geosci. 1, 827–831 (2008)
Bartholomew, I. et al. Short-term variability in Greenland Ice Sheet motion forced by time-varying meltwater drainage: implications for the relationship between subglacial drainage system behavior and ice velocity. J. Geophys. Res. 117, F03002 (2012)
Andrews, L. C. et al. Direct observations of evolving subglacial drainage beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. Nature 514, 80–83 (2014)
Joughin, I. et al. Seasonal speedup along the western flank of the Greenland ice sheet. Science 320, 781–783 (2008)
Das, S. B. et al. Fracture propagation to the base of the Greenland ice sheet during supraglacial lake drainage. Science 320, 778–781 (2008)
Joughin, I., Alley, R. B. & Holland, D. M. Ice-sheet response to oceanic forcing. Science 338, 1172–1176 (2012)
Murray, T. et al. Ocean regulation hypothesis for glacier dynamics in southeast Greenland and implications for ice sheet mass changes. J. Geophys. Res. 115, http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2009JF001522 (2010)
Phillips, T., Rajaram, H., Colgan, W., Steffen, K. & Abdalati, W. Evaluation of cryo-hydrologic warming as an explanation for increased ice velocities in the wet snow zone, Sermeq Avannarleq, West Greenland. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 1241–1256 (2013)
Thoma, M., Grosfeld, K., Mayer, C. & Pattyn, F. Ice-flow sensitivity to boundary processes: a coupled model study in the Vostok Subglacial Lake area, Antarctica. Ann. Glaciol. 53, 173–180 (2012)
Bell, R. E. et al. Deformation, warming and softening of Greenland’s ice by refreezing meltwater. Nature Geosci. 7, 497–502 (2014)
Rennermalm, A. K. et al. Evidence of meltwater retention within the Greenland ice sheet. Cryosphere 7, 1433–1445 (2013)
Palmer, S. J. et al. Greenland subglacial lakes detected by radar. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 6154–6159 (2013)
Wolovick, M. J., Bell, R. E., Creyts, T. T. & Frearson, N. Identification and control of subglacial water networks under Dome A, Antarctica. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 1–15 (2013)
Bell, R. E. The role of subglacial water in ice-sheet mass balance. Nature Geosci. 1, 297–304 (2008)
Tedesco, M., Fettweis, X., Alexander, P., Green, G. & Datta, T. MAR Greenland Outputs 1953-2013 (City University of New York Digital Archive, 2014)
Rogozhina, I. et al. Effects of uncertainties in the geothermal heat flux distribution on the Greenland Ice Sheet: An assessment of existing heat flow models. J. Geophys. Res. 117, F02025 (2012)
Glasser, N. F. & Siegert, M. J. Calculating basal temperatures in ice sheets: an Excel spreadsheet method. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 27, 673–680 (2002)
Palmer, S. J., Shepherd, A., Sundal, A., Rinne, E. & Nienow, P. InSAR observations of ice elevation and velocity fluctuations at the Flade Isblink ice cap, eastern North Greenland. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F04037 (2010)
Smith, B. E., Fricker, H. A., Joughin, I. R. & Tulaczyk, S. An inventory of active subglacial lakes in Antarctica detected by ICESat (2003–2008). J. Glaciol. 55, 573–595 (2009)
Shreve, R. L. Movement of water in glaciers. J. Glaciol. 11, 205–214 (1972)
Gulley, J. D. et al. The effect of discrete recharge by moulins and heterogeneity in flow-path efficiency at glacier beds on subglacial hydrology. J. Glaciol. 58, 926–940 (2012)
Bamber, J. L. et al. A new bed elevation dataset for Greenland. Cryosphere 7, 499–510 (2013)
Rinne, E. J. et al. On the recent elevation changes at the Flade Isblink Ice Cap, northern Greenland. J. Geophys. Res. 116, F03024 (2011)
Aðalgeirsdóttir, G., Gudmundsson, G. H. & Björnsson, H. The response of a glacier to a surface disturbance: a case study on Vatnajökull ice cap, Iceland. Ann. Glaciol. 31, 104–110 (2000)
Fricker, H. A., Scambos, T. A., Bindschadler, R. & Padman, L. An active subglacial water system in West Antarctica mapped from space. Science 315, 1544–1548 (2007)
Livingstone, S. J., Clark, C. D., Woodward, J. & Kingslake, J. Potential subglacial lake locations and meltwater drainage pathways beneath the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Cryosphere 7, 1721–1740 (2013)
Krabill, W. B. IceBridge ATM L2 Icessn Elevation, Slope, and Roughness. Version 2. Subset of data from 2013.04.26 http://nsidc.org/data/icesat/ (NASA DAAC at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2014)
Gogineni, P. CReSIS Radar Depth Sounder Data http://data.cresis.ku.edu/ (2012)
Moratto, Z. M., Broxton, M. J., Beyer, R. A., Lundy, M. & Husmann, K. Ames Stereo Pipeline, NASA’s open source automated stereogrammetry software. Lunar Planet. Sci. Conf. 41, (2010)
Krabill, W. B. et al. Aircraft laser altimetry measurement of elevation changes of the greenland ice sheet: technique and accuracy assessment. J. Geodyn. 34, 357–376 (2002)
Rolstad, C., Haug, T. & Denby, B. Spatially integrated geodetic glacier mass balance and its uncertainty based on geostatistical analysis: application to the western Svartisen ice cap, Norway. J. Glaciol. 55, 666–680 (2009)
Howat, I. M., Smith, B. E., Joughin, I. & Scambos, T. A. Rates of southeast Greenland ice volume loss from combined ICESat and ASTER observations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2008GL034496 (2008)
The copyright for the satellite imagery is held by DigitalGlobe, Inc. We thank M. Studinger, T. Wagner, the NASA Operation IceBridge project team and the National Snow and Ice Data Center for the airborne radar and laser altimetry. We thank S. Palmer for providing the European Remote Sensing satellite InSAR DEM. We thank the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Research Computing group for providing computational resources that have contributed to these research results. We thank M. Tedesco and X. Fettweis for help with MAR (Modele Atmospherique Regional) output. We thank T. Pavelsky, B. Mirus and J. Rich for comments and suggestions that improved the paper. This work was supported by US National Science Foundation grant number ARC-1111882. WorldView imagery was provided by the Polar Geospatial Center at the University of Minnesota, which is supported by grant ANT-1043681 from the US National Science Foundation.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Extended data figures and tables
Extended Data Figure 1 Operation IceBridge radar profile showing ice depths near the southern summit of Flade Isblink ice cap, northeast Greenland.
Modified from a profile of the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder (operated by the University of Kansas)31 over the ‘thumb’ basin collected on 26 April 2013. The NASA IceBridge flight line proceeds from approximately northeast to southwest and is shown in Fig. 1. The purple dotted line is the ice surface; the red dotted line is the ice/bed interface. The ‘thumb’ basin is at ∼33 km along the flight line and shows an ice depth of ∼540 m. The propagation delay is the time for the radar to travel from the aircraft to the ice and back; details of its conversion to depth can be found at the MCoRDS technical page: ftp://data.cresis.ku.edu/data/rds/rds_readme.pdf. The dielectric constant for ice (er) used during the conversion from propagation delay to ice depth is set to 3.15 m.
Extended Data Figure 2 Surface collapse basin near the ice divide of Flade Isblink ice cap, northeast Greenland.
Photographed from the north by M. Studinger, NASA Operation IceBridge, on 26 April 2013.
Extended Data Figure 3 Collapse basin and northward-flowing supraglacial stream network near the ice divide of Flade Isblink ice cap, northeast Greenland.
Supraglacial water disappears into crevasses at the edge of the basin. WorldView-2 multispectral image from 14 August 2012. Imagery copyright 2012, DigitalGlobe Inc.
a, Repeat elevation profile S to S′, adjacent to the basin, shown in b. Three to six metres of subsidence is seen within a kilometre of the rim of the basin. A crevasse observed in 2012 closes by 2013. The dotted black line is the pre-collapse ice surface elevation modified from ref. 21. The profile is colour-indexed by time of satellite DEM acquisition (scale on right). Uncertainties in elevation are typically less than ∼0.5 m. b, Location of profile on WorldView DEM.
About this article
Cite this article
Willis, M., Herried, B., Bevis, M. et al. Recharge of a subglacial lake by surface meltwater in northeast Greenland. Nature 518, 223–227 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14116
This article is cited by
Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (2022)
Nature Communications (2019)
Scientific Reports (2019)
Nature Climate Change (2018)
Nature Communications (2016)