Rapid response of Helheim Glacier in Greenland to climate variability over the past century


During the early 2000s the Greenland Ice Sheet experienced the largest ice-mass loss of the instrumental record1, largely as a result of the acceleration, thinning and retreat of large outlet glaciers in West and southeast Greenland2,3,4,5. The quasi-simultaneous change in the glaciers suggests a common climate forcing. Increasing air6 and ocean7,8 temperatures have been indicated as potential triggers. Here, we present a record of calving activity of Helheim Glacier, East Greenland, that extends back to about AD 1890, based on an analysis of sedimentary deposits from Sermilik Fjord, where Helheim Glacier terminates. Specifically, we use the annual deposition of sand grains as a proxy for iceberg discharge. Our record reveals large fluctuations in calving rates, but the present high rate was reproduced only in the 1930s. A comparison with climate indices indicates that high calving activity coincides with a relatively strong influence of Atlantic water and a lower influence of polar water on the shelf off Greenland, as well as with warm summers and the negative phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation. Our analysis provides evidence that Helheim Glacier responds to short-term fluctuations of large-scale oceanic and atmospheric conditions, on timescales of 3–10 years.

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Figure 1: Sermilik Fjord and Helheim Glacier with position of cores.
Figure 2: Sand deposition rates in the cores.
Figure 3: Comparison between calving record and climate indices.


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This study has been supported by Geocenter Denmark in financial support to the SEDIMICE project. C.S.A. was supported by the Danish Council for Independent Research | Nature and Universe (Grant no. 09-064954/FNU). F. Straneo was supported by NSF ARC 0909373 and by WHOI’s Ocean and Climate Change Institute and M.H.R. was supported by the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation. We thank Y. O. Kwon for insightful discussions on the climate data analysis and K. K. Kjeldsen for help with the digital elevation model image.

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A.P.A., C.S.A. and A.K. conceived the study and C.S.A. and N.N-P. conducted fieldwork. C.S.A. is mainly responsible for data interpretation and sediment core data analysis and led the writing of the paper. F. Straneo contributed expertise on oceanography, statistical analysis and data interpretation and M.H.R. provided the oceanographic data compilation south of Iceland and updated the storis index from 2000 to 2008. A.A.B. and K.H.K. are responsible for glacier image analysis. T.J.A. measured the 210Pb and 137Cs activities. F. Schjøth compiled bathymetry data into the map. All authors contributed to data interpretation and writing of the manuscript.

Correspondence to Camilla S. Andresen.

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Andresen, C., Straneo, F., Ribergaard, M. et al. Rapid response of Helheim Glacier in Greenland to climate variability over the past century. Nature Geosci 5, 37–41 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1349

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