Letter | Published:

Decadal slowdown of a land-terminating sector of the Greenland Ice Sheet despite warming

Nature volume 526, pages 692695 (29 October 2015) | Download Citation


Ice flow along land-terminating margins of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) varies considerably in response to fluctuating inputs of surface meltwater to the bed of the ice sheet. Such inputs lubricate the ice–bed interface, transiently speeding up the flow of ice1,2. Greater melting results in faster ice motion during summer, but slower motion over the subsequent winter, owing to the evolution of an efficient drainage system that enables water to drain from regions of the ice-sheet bed that have a high basal water pressure2,3. However, the impact of hydrodynamic coupling on ice motion over decadal timescales remains poorly constrained. Here we show that annual ice motion across an 8,000-km2 land-terminating region of the west GIS margin, extending to 1,100 m above sea level, was 12% slower in 2007–14 compared with 1985–94, despite a 50% increase in surface meltwater production. Our findings suggest that, over these three decades, hydrodynamic coupling in this section of the ablation zone resulted in a net slowdown of ice motion (not a speed-up, as previously postulated1). Increases in meltwater production from projected climate warming may therefore further reduce the motion of land-terminating margins of the GIS. Our findings suggest that these sectors of the ice sheet are more resilient to the dynamic impacts of enhanced meltwater production than previously thought.

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A.J.T. acknowledges UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) studentships NE/152830X/1 and NE/J500021/1, a Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society (SAGES) Postdoctoral/Early Career Researcher Exchange (PECRE) award, and a University of Edinburgh GeoSciences Moss scholarship. N.G. acknowledges European Space Agency Dragon 3 grant 10302, the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales Tosca CESTENG project, and a fellowship from the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales to A.D. This work made use of the resources provided by the Edinburgh Compute and Data Facility (ECDF) (http://www.ecdf.ed.ac.uk/). We thank P. Huybrechts for his work on the runoff/retention model used in this study. The Landsat imagery was provided by the United States Geological Survey and the European Space Agency third party missions program.

Author information


  1. School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9XP, UK

    • Andrew J. Tedstone
    • , Peter W. Nienow
    • , Noel Gourmelen
    • , Amaury Dehecq
    •  & Daniel Goldberg
  2. Université Savoie Mont-Blanc, Polytech Annecy-Chambéry, LISTIC, BP 80439, 74944 Annecy-le-Vieux cedex, France

    • Amaury Dehecq
  3. Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • Edward Hanna


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A.J.T., P.W.N. and N.G. designed this study. A.D., N.G. and A.J.T. developed the processing chain used for feature tracking of Landsat imagery. A.J.T., A.D. and N.G. processed the Landsat imagery. A.J.T. and D.G. calculated the impact of changing ice geometry upon ice motion. E.H. processed the melt data. A.J.T., N.G. and P.W.N. analysed the results. A.J.T., P.W.N. and N.G. wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrew J. Tedstone.

Extended data

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data 1

    This file contains a list of all the pairs of Landsat images processed to derive velocity fields.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Data 2

    This file contains lists of the processed Landsat pairs which contribute to each velocity period.

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