Abstract

Climate changes are pronounced in Arctic regions and increase the vulnerability of the Arctic coastal zone1. For example, increases in melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and reductions in sea ice and permafrost distribution are likely to alter coastal morphodynamics. The deltas of Greenland are largely unaffected by human activity, but increased freshwater runoff and sediment fluxes may increase the size of the deltas, whereas increased wave activity in ice-free periods could reduce their size, with the net impact being unclear until now. Here we show that southwestern Greenland deltas were largely stable from the 1940s to 1980s, but prograded (that is, sediment deposition extended the delta into the sea) in a warming Arctic from the 1980s to 2010s. Our results are based on the areal changes of 121 deltas since the 1940s, assessed using newly discovered aerial photographs and remotely sensed imagery. We find that delta progradation was driven by high freshwater runoff from the Greenland Ice Sheet coinciding with periods of open water. Progradation was controlled by the local initial environmental conditions (that is, accumulated air temperatures above 0 °C per year, freshwater runoff and sea ice in the 1980s) rather than by local changes in these conditions from the 1980s to 2010s at each delta. This is in contrast to a dominantly eroding trend of Arctic sedimentary coasts along the coastal plains of Alaska2, Siberia3 and western Canada4, and to the spatially variable patterns of erosion and accretion along the large deltas of the main rivers in the Arctic5,6,7. Our results improve the understanding of Arctic coastal evolution in a changing climate, and reveal the impacts on coastal areas of increasing ice mass loss and the associated freshwater runoff and lengthening of open-water periods.

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Acknowledgements

This study would not have been possible without the aid of the Danish Geodata Agency (GST), who gave us access to the historical aerial photographs. The modern satellite imagery was obtained through the freely available online database Google Earth. M.B., A.K., A.W.-N. and B.E. acknowledge financial support from the Danish National Research Foundation (CENPERM DNRF100). L.L.I. was funded by the Carlsberg Foundation (grant 0604-02230B). A.A.B. acknowledges support from the Danish Council for Independent Research, grant DFF-610800469, and from the Inge Lehmann Scholarship from the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters. I.O. received support from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Polar Programs (grant ARC-0909349) and INSTAAR. S.A.K. was funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (grant DFF-4181-00126). K.R.B. acknowledges support from the Annenberg Public Policy Center and NSF SI2-SSI Award 1450409. J.A. acknowledges the ClimateBasis programme of the Greenland Ecosystem Monitoring system (www.g-e-m.dk) and Asiaq Greenland Survey. K.L. was supported by Asiaq Greenland Survey.

Author information

Author notes

    • Mette Bendixen
    •  & Lars Lønsmann Iversen

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Center for Permafrost (CENPERM), University of Copenhagen, DK-1350 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Mette Bendixen
    • , Bo Elberling
    • , Andreas Westergaard-Nielsen
    •  & Aart Kroon
  2. Department of Biology, Freshwater Biology, University of Copenhagen, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Lars Lønsmann Iversen
  3. Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, DK-1350 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Anders Anker Bjørk
  4. Department of Earth System Science, University of California Irvine, California 92697, USA

    • Anders Anker Bjørk
  5. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • Anders Anker Bjørk
  6. Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • Irina Overeem
  7. Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • Katy R. Barnhart
  8. DTU Space, National Space Institute, Technical University of Denmark, DK-2800 Lyngby, Denmark

    • Shfaqat Abbas Khan
  9. Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), Glaciology, DK-1350 Copenhagen, Denmark

    • Jason E. Box
  10. Asiaq Greenland Survey, Postbox 1003, 3900 Nuuk, Greenland

    • Jakob Abermann
    •  & Kirsty Langley

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Contributions

M.B. and L.L.I. designed the study, and, together with A.A.B., B.E. and A.K., framed the research questions. M.B. and A.A.B collected the data used in the photographic data analysis, and J.A. and K.L. assembled parts of this data. I.O. and K.R.B. analysed sea-ice data, A.W.-N. and J.E.B. analysed the data for the regional climate model, S.A.K. analysed isostasy data, and M.B. and L.L.I. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript with contributions and inputs from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mette Bendixen.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks M. Fritz, W. Pollard and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature23873

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