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Significant contribution of insolation to Eemian melting of the Greenland ice sheet


During the Eemian interglacial period, 130,000 to 114,000 years ago, the volume of the Greenland ice sheet was about 30–60% smaller than the present-day volume1,2. Summer temperatures in the Arctic region were about 2–4 K higher than today3,4,5, leading to the suggestion that Eemian conditions could be considered an analogue for future warming6, particularly for the future stability of the Greenland ice sheet. However, Northern Hemisphere insolation was much higher during the Eemian than today, which could affect the reliability of this analogy. Here we use a high-resolution regional climate model with a realistic ice-sheet surface representation to assess the surface mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet during the Eemian. Our simulations show that Eemian climate led to an 83% lower surface mass balance, compared with the preindustrial simulation. Our sensitivity experiments show that only about 55% of this change in surface mass balance can be attributed to higher ambient temperatures, with the remaining 45% caused by higher insolation and associated nonlinear feedbacks. We show that temperature–melt relations are dependent on changes in insolation. Hence, we suggest that projections of future Greenland ice loss on the basis of Eemian temperature–melt relations may overestimate the future vulnerability of the ice sheet.

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Figure 1: Drivers of Eemian climate anomalies in Greenland.
Figure 2: Impact of Eemian climate anomalies on Greenland surface mass balance.
Figure 3: Evaluation of temperature–melt methods.


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This work is funded by Utrecht University and the Polar Program of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, section Earth and Life Sciences (NWO/ALW).

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All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. W.J.v.d.B. and M.v.d.B. wrote the paper and integrated the results, W.J.v.d.B. carried out RACMO2/GR calculations and the temperature–melt analysis, M.v.d.B., W.J.v.d.B., J.E. and E.v.M. contributed to the development of RACMO2/GR and F.K. provided ECHO-G boundary fields.

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Correspondence to Willem Jan van de Berg.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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van de Berg, W., van den Broeke, M., Ettema, J. et al. Significant contribution of insolation to Eemian melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Nature Geosci 4, 679–683 (2011).

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