The response of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) to changes in temperature during the twentieth century remains contentious1, largely owing to difficulties in estimating the spatial and temporal distribution of ice mass changes before 1992, when Greenland-wide observations first became available2. The only previous estimates of change during the twentieth century are based on empirical modelling3,4,5 and energy balance modelling6,7. Consequently, no observation-based estimates of the contribution from the GIS to the global-mean sea level budget before 1990 are included in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change8. Here we calculate spatial ice mass loss around the entire GIS from 1900 to the present using aerial imagery from the 1980s. This allows accurate high-resolution mapping of geomorphic features related to the maximum extent of the GIS during the Little Ice Age9 at the end of the nineteenth century. We estimate the total ice mass loss and its spatial distribution for three periods: 1900–1983 (75.1 ± 29.4 gigatonnes per year), 1983–2003 (73.8 ± 40.5 gigatonnes per year), and 2003–2010 (186.4 ± 18.9 gigatonnes per year). Furthermore, using two surface mass balance models10,11 we partition the mass balance into a term for surface mass balance (that is, total precipitation minus total sublimation minus runoff) and a dynamic term. We find that many areas currently undergoing change are identical to those that experienced considerable thinning throughout the twentieth century. We also reveal that the surface mass balance term shows a considerable decrease since 2003, whereas the dynamic term is constant over the past 110 years. Overall, our observation-based findings show that during the twentieth century the GIS contributed at least 25.0 ± 9.4 millimetres of global-mean sea level rise. Our result will help to close the twentieth-century sea level budget, which remains crucial for evaluating the reliability of models used to predict global sea level rise1,8.

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This study would not have been possible without the aid of The Danish Geodata Agency (GST), who gave us access to their historical aerial photographs. This work is a part of the X_Centuries project funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (FNU) (grant number DFF-0602-02526B) and the Centre for GeoGenetics supported by the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF94). K.K.K. acknowledges support from the Danish Council for Independent Research (FNU) and the Sapere Aude: DFF-Research Talent programme (grant number DFF-4090-00151). J.E.B., K.H.K. and N.K.L. acknowledge support by the GeoCenter Denmark (“Multi-millennial ice volume changes of the Greenland ice sheet”). S.A.K. acknowledges supports from the Carlsberg Foundation (grant number CF14-0145) and the Danish Council for Independent Research (FNU) (grant number DFF-4181-00126). M.v.d.B. acknowledges support from the Netherlands Polar Program of the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research (NWO). C.N. acknowledges support by the European Research Council (EUFP7/ERC grant number 320816). We thank A. J. Long, S. A. Woodroffe, B. M. Vinther, and R. Hurkmans for contribution during the early phase of this study.

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Author notes

    • Kristian K. Kjeldsen
    •  & Niels J. Korsgaard

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen 1350, Denmark

    • Kristian K. Kjeldsen
    • , Niels J. Korsgaard
    • , Anders A. Bjørk
    • , Svend Funder
    • , Nicolaj K. Larsen
    • , Marie-Louise Siggaard-Andersen
    • , Anders Schomacker
    • , Eske Willerslev
    •  & Kurt H. Kjær
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5, Canada

    • Kristian K. Kjeldsen
  3. DTU Space—National Space Institute, Technical University of Denmark, Department of Geodesy, Kongens Lyngby 2800, Denmark

    • Shfaqat A. Khan
  4. Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Department of Marine Geology and Glaciology, Copenhagen 1350, Denmark

    • Jason E. Box
    • , William Colgan
    •  & Camilla S. Andresen
  5. Department of Geoscience, Aarhus University, Aarhus 8000, Denmark

    • Nicolaj K. Larsen
  6. Bristol Glaciology Centre, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1SS, UK

    • Jonathan L. Bamber
  7. Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering, York University, Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3, Canada

    • William Colgan
  8. Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht University, Utrecht 80005, The Netherlands

    • Michiel van den Broeke
  9. Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, Oslo 0316, Norway

    • Christopher Nuth


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K.K.K. and K.H.K. designed and conducted the study. N.J.K. did photogrammetric modelling and aero-photogrammetric DEM processing, and quality control and validation with C.N. K.K.K. undertook the Geographical Information System analysis. A.A.B. conducted the manual photogrammetry measurements. S.A.K. carried out analysis of surface elevation data, developed the scaling method, and made the mass balance calculations. J.E.B., J.L.B., and M.v.d.B. provided SMB model and context. W.C., J.E.B., and K.K.K. performed temporal discharge and mass balance modelling. S.F. and N.K.L. provided the historical context of ice sheet extent. All authors contributed to discussion and writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kurt H. Kjær.

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