The Greenland ice sheet has been one of the largest contributors to global sea-level rise over the past 20 years, accounting for 0.5 mm yr−1 of a total of 3.2 mm yr−1. A significant portion of this contribution is associated with the speed-up of an increased number of glaciers in southeast and northwest Greenland. Here, we show that the northeast Greenland ice stream, which extends more than 600 km into the interior of the ice sheet, is now undergoing sustained dynamic thinning, linked to regional warming, after more than a quarter of a century of stability. This sector of the Greenland ice sheet is of particular interest, because the drainage basin area covers 16% of the ice sheet (twice that of Jakobshavn Isbræ) and numerical model predictions suggest no significant mass loss for this sector, leading to an under-estimation of future global sea-level rise. The geometry of the bedrock and monotonic trend in glacier speed-up and mass loss suggests that dynamic drawdown of ice in this region will continue in the near future.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 print issues and online access
$209.00 per year
only $17.42 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Similar content being viewed by others
Van den Broeke, M. et al. Partitioning recent greenland mass loss. Science 326, 984–986 (2009).
Holland, D. M., Thomas, R. H., De Young, B., Ribergaard, M. H. & Lyberth, B. Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters. Nature Geosci. 1, 659–664 (2008).
Thomas, R. H. et al. Investigation of surface melting and dynamic thinning on Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. J. Glaciol. 49, 231–239 (2003).
Rignot, E., Box, J. E., Burgess, E. & Hanna, E. Mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet from 1958 to 2007. Geophys. Res. Lett. 10.1029/2008GL035417 (2008).
Pritchard, H. D., Arthern., R. J., Vaughan, D. G. & Edwards, L. A. Extensive dynamic thinning on the margins of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Nature 461, 971–975 (2009).
Shepherd, A. et al. A reconciled estimate of ice-sheet mass balance. Science 338, 1183–1189 (2013).
Kjær, K. H. et al. Aerial photographs reveal late-20th-century dynamic ice loss in northwestern Greenland. Science 337, 569–573 (2012).
Moon, T., Joughin, I., Smith, B. & Howat, I. 21st-century evolution of Greenland outlet glacier velocities. Science 336, 576–578 (2012).
Stearns, L. A. & Hamilton, G. S. Rapid volume loss from two east Greenland outlet glaciers quantified using repeat stereo satellite imagery. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L05503 (2007).
Luckman, A., Murray, T., de Lange, R. & Hanna, E. Rapid and synchronous ice-dynamic changes in east Greenland. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L03503 (2006).
Howat, I. M. et al. Mass balance of Greenland’s three largest outlet glaciers, 2000–2010. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L12501 (2011).
Motyka, R. J., Fahnestock, M. & Truffer, M. Volume change of Jakobshavn Isbræ, West Greenland: 1985–1997–2007. J. Glaciol. 56, 635–646 (2010).
Bjørk, A. A. et al. An aerial view of 80 years of climate-related glacier fluctuations in southeast Greenland. Nature Geosci. 5, 427–432 (2012).
Khan, S. A. et al. Elastic uplift in southeast Greenland due to rapid ice mass loss. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L21701 (2007).
Nick, F. M. et al. The response of Petermann Glacier, Greenland, to large calving events, and its future stability in the context of atmospheric and oceanic warming. J. Glaciol. 10.3189/2012JoG11J242 (2012).
Sasgen, I. et al. Timing and origin of recent regional ice-mass loss in Greenland. Earth Planet. Sc. Lett. 333–334, 29–303 (2012).
Bamber, J. L. et al. A new bed elevation dataset for Greenland. Cryosphere 7, 499–510 (2013).
Joughin, I. et al. Seasonal to decadal scale variations in the surface velocity of Jakobshavn Isbrae, Greenland: Observation and model-based analysis. J. Geophys. Res. 117, F02030 (2012).
Thomas, R. H. The dynamics of marine ice sheets. J. Glaciol. 24, 167–177 (1979).
Weertman, J. Stability of the junction of an ice sheet and an ice shelf. J. Glaciol. 13, 3–11 (1974).
Schoof, C. Ice sheet grounding line dynamics: Steady states, stability and hysteresis. J. Geophys. Res. 112, F03S28 (2007).
Reeh, N., Thomsen, H., Higgins, A. K. & Weidick, A. Sea ice and the stability of north and northeast Greenland floating glaciers. Ann. Glaciol. 33, 474–480 (2001).
Joughin, I., Fahnestock, M., MacAyeal, D., Bamber, J. L. & Goginensi, P. Observation and analysis of ice flow in the largest Greenland ice stream. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 34021–34034 (2001).
Thomsen, H. H. et al. The Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden Glacier project, north–east Greenland: A study of ice sheet response to climatic change. Geol. Greenland Survey Bull. 176, 95–103 (1997).
Seroussi, H. et al. Ice flux divergence anomalies on 79 North Glacier, Greenland. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L09501 (2011).
Rignot, E. J. et al. North and northeast Greenland ice discharge from satellite radar interferometry. Science 276, 934–937 (1997).
Krabill, W. B. IceBridge ATM L2 Icessn Elevation, Slope, and Roughness, [1993–2012]. Boulder, Colorado, USA (NASA Distributed Active Archive Center at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, http://nsidc.org/data/ilatm2.html (2012).
Zwally, H. J. et al. GLAS/ICESat L2 Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheet Altimetry Data V031. Boulder, Colorado (NASA Distributed Active Archive Center at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, (2011).
Blair, B. & Hofton, M. IceBridge LVIS L2 Geolocated Ground Elevation and Return Energy Quartiles, Boulder, Colorado USA (NASA Distributed Active Archive Center at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, http://nsidc.org/data/ilvis2.html (2012).
ESA, ENVISAT RA2/MWR Product Handbook (European Space Agency, (2007).
GST Ground control for 1:150,000 scale aerials, Greenland (Danish Ministry of the Environment, Danish Geodata Agency, http://www.gst.dk/Emner/Referencenet/Referencesystemer/GR96/ (2013).
Ettema, J. et al. Climate of the Greenland ice sheet using a high-resolution climate model–Part 1: Evaluation. Cryosphere 4, 511–527 (2010).
Joughin, I., Abdalati, W. & Fahnestock, M. Large fluctuations in speed on Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier. Nature 432, 608–610 (2004).
Reeh, N., Bøggild, C. E. & Oerter, H. Surge of Storstrømmen, a large outlet glacier from the inland ice of north-east Greenland. Grønl. Geol. Unders. Rapp. 162, 201–209 (1994).
Thomas, R., Frederick, E., Krabill, W., Manizade, S. & Martin, C. Recent changes on Greenland outlet glaciers. J. Glaciol. 55, 147–162 (2009).
Khan, S. A., Wahr, J., Bevis, M., Velicogna, I. & Kendrick, E. Spread of ice mass loss into northwest Greenland observed by GRACE and GPS. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L06501 (2010).
Bevis, M. et al. Bedrock displacements in Greenland manifest ice mass variations, climate cycles and climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 11944–11948 (2012).
Box, J. E. & Decker, D. T. Greenland marine-terminating glacier area changes: 2000–2010. Ann. Glaciol. 37, 91–98 (2011).
Joughin, I., Smith, B. E., Howat, I. M., Scambos, T. A. & Moon, T. Greenland flow variability from ice-sheet-wide velocity mapping. J. Glaciol. 56, 415–430 (2010).
Comiso, J. Bootstrap Sea Ice Concentrations from Nimbus-7 SMMR and DMSP SSM/I-SSMIS. Version 2. Boulder, Colorado USA (NASA DAAC at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, (1999) updated 2012.
Cappelen, J. Weather Observations from Greenland 1958–2012 Technical Report 13–11 (Ministry of Climate and Energy, 2012).
Ingleby, B. & Huddleston, M. Quality control of ocean temperature and salinity profiles–historical and real-time data. J. Mar. Syst. 65, 158–175 (2007).
Beszczynska-Moller, A., Fahrbach, E., Schauer, U. & Hansen, E. Variability in Atlantic water temperature and transport at the entrance to the Arctic Ocean. ICES J. Mar. Sci. 69, 1997–2010 (2012).
Nick, F. et al. Future sea-level rise from Greenland’s main outlet glaciers in a warming climate. Nature 497, 235–238 (2013).
Price, S. F., Payne, A. J., Howat, I. M. & Smith, B. E Committed sea-level rise for the next century from Greenland ice sheet dynamics during the past decade. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 8978–8983 (2011).
Gillet-Chaulet, F. et al. Greenland ice sheet contribution to sea-level rise from a new-generation ice-sheet model. Cryosphere 6, 1561–1576 (2012).
Yin, J. et al. Different magnitudes of projected subsurface ocean warming around Greenland and Antarctica. Nature Geosci. 4, 524–528 (2011).
AMAP, The Greenland Ice Sheet in a Changing Climate: Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, (2011).
S.A.K., K.H.K. and I.S.M. were supported by the Danish Research Council (FNU). K.H.K. acknowledges support from Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF94-GeoGenetics). N.K.L. acknowledges support from the Danish Research Council no. 272-09-0095 and the VILLUM Foundation.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Khan, S., Kjær, K., Bevis, M. et al. Sustained mass loss of the northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming. Nature Clim Change 4, 292–299 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2161
This article is cited by
Scientific Data (2023)
Nature Communications (2023)
Sea surface salinity changes and trans-basin water vapor transport between the Atlantic and Pacific under CMIP6 abrupt-4xCO2 scenario
Climate Dynamics (2023)
Nature Communications (2022)
Nature Climate Change (2022)