Recent studies have focused on the short-term contribution of the Greenland ice sheet to sea-level rise, yet little is known about its long-term stability. The present best estimate of the threshold in global temperature rise leading to complete melting of the ice sheet is 3.1 °C (1.9–5.1 °C, 95% confidence interval) above the preindustrial climate1, determined as the temperature for which the modelled surface mass balance of the present-day ice sheet turns negative. Here, using a fully coupled model, we show that this criterion systematically overestimates the temperature threshold and that the Greenland ice sheet is more sensitive to long-term climate change than previously thought. We estimate that the warming threshold leading to a monostable, essentially ice-free state is in the range of 0.8–3.2 °C, with a best estimate of 1.6 °C. By testing the ice sheet’s ability to regrow after partial mass loss, we find that at least one intermediate equilibrium state is possible, though for sufficiently high initial temperature anomalies, total loss of the ice sheet becomes irreversible. Crossing the threshold alone does not imply rapid melting (for temperatures near the threshold, complete melting takes tens of millennia). However, the timescale of melt depends strongly on the magnitude and duration of the temperature overshoot above this critical threshold.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Nature Climate Change Open Access 01 September 2022
Nonlinear Dynamics Open Access 01 September 2021
Nature Communications Open Access 27 October 2020
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 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.
Gregory, J. M. & Huybrechts, P. Ice-sheet contributions to future sea-level change. Phil. Tran. R. Soc. A 364, 1709–1732 (2006).
Oerlemans, J. & Van Den Dool, H. M. Energy balance climate models: Stability experiments with a refined albedo and updated coefficients for infrared emission. J. Atmos. Sci. 35, 371–381 (1978).
Letréguilly, A., Huybrechts, P. & Reeh, N. Steady-state characteristics of the Greenland ice sheet under different climates. J. Glaciol. 37, 149–157 (1991).
Crowley, T. J. & Baum, S. K. Is the greenland ice sheet bistable? Paleoceanography 10, 357–363 (1995).
Lenton, T. M. et al. Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 1786–1793 (2008).
Archer, D. et al. Atmospheric lifetime of fossil fuel carbon dioxide. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 37, 117–134 (2009).
Pollard, D. & DeConto, R. M. Hysteresis in Cenozoic Antarctic ice-sheet variations. Glob. Planet. Change 45, 9–21 (2005).
Calov, R. & Ganopolski, A. Multistability and hysteresis in the climate-cryosphere system under orbital forcing. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L21717 (2005).
Toniazzo, T., Gregory, J. M. & Huybrechts, P. Climatic impact of a Greenland deglaciation and its possible irreversibility. J. Clim. 17, 21–33 (2004).
Charbit, S., Paillard, D. & Ramstein, G. Amount of CO2 emissions irreversibly leading to the total melting of Greenland. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L12503 (2008).
Ridley, J., Gregory, J. M., Huybrechts, P. & Lowe, J. Thresholds for irreversible decline of the Greenland ice sheet. Clim. Dynam. 35, 1049–1057 (2009).
Meehl, G. A. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) 747–846 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Bougamont, M. et al. Impact of model physics on estimating the surface mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L17501 (2007).
Robinson, A., Calov, R. & Ganopolski, A. An efficient regional energy-moisture balance model for simulation of the Greenland ice sheet response to climate change. The Cryosphere 4, 129–144 (2010).
Greve, R. Application of a polythermal three-dimensional ice sheet model to the Greenland ice sheet: Response to steady-state and transient climate scenarios. J. Clim. 10, 901–918 (1997).
Robinson, A., Calov, R. & Ganopolski, A. Greenland ice sheet model parameters constrained using simulations of the Eemian Interglacial. Clim. Past 7, 381–396 (2011).
Frieler, K., Meinshausen, M., Mengel, M., Braun, N. & Hare, W. A scaling approach to probabilistic assessment of regional climate change. J. Clim. http://dx.doi.org/110927043956000 (in the press, 2011).
Meehl, G. A. et al. The WCRP CMIP3 multimodel dataset: A new era in climate change research. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 88, 1383–1394 (2007).
Franco, B., Fettweis, X., Erpicum, M. & Nicolay, S. Present and future climates of the Greenland ice sheet according to the IPCC AR4 models. Clim. Dynam. 36, 1897–1918 (2010).
Christensen, J. H. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) 847–940 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Box, J. E., Yang, L., Bromwich, D. H. & Bai, L-S. Greenland ice sheet surface air temperature variability: 1840–2007. J. Clim. 22, 4029–4049 (2009).
Ridley, J. K., Huybrechts, P., Gregory, J. M. & Lowe, J. A. Elimination of the Greenland ice sheet in a high CO2 climate. J. Clim. 18, 3409–3427 (2005).
Rahmstorf, S. Bifurcations of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation in response to changes in the hydrological cycle. Nature 378, 145–149 (1995).
Hardy, R. J., Bamber, J. L. & Orford, S. The delineation of drainage basins on the Greenland ice sheet for mass-balance analyses using a combined modelling and geographical information system approach. Hydrol. Process. 14, 1931–1941 (2000).
Lewis, S. M. & Smith, L. C. Hydrologic drainage of the Greenland ice sheet. Hydrol. Process. 23, 2004–2011 (2009).
Uppala, S. M. et al. The ERA-40 re-analysis. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 131, 2961–3012 (2005).
We would like to thank R. Greve for providing us with the ice-sheet model SICOPOLIS. We are also grateful to K. Frieler for providing the AOGCM scaling coefficients and to M. Perrette and J. Rougier for support concerning statistics. We acknowledge the modelling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison and the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling for their roles in making available the World Climate Research Programme CMIP3 multimodel data set. Support of this data set is provided by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. A.R. was financially supported by the European Commission’s Marie Curie 6th Framework Programme and by the Spanish Ministry of the Environment under project 200800050084028. R.C. was financially supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft grant RA 977/6-1.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Robinson, A., Calov, R. & Ganopolski, A. Multistability and critical thresholds of the Greenland ice sheet. Nature Clim Change 2, 429–432 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1449
This article is cited by
Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (2022)
Nature Climate Change (2022)
Nonlinear Dynamics (2022)