Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Rignot, E. & Kanagaratnam, P. Changes in the velocity structure of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Science 311, 986–990 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Joughin, I., Abdalati, W. & Fahnestock, M. Large fluctuations in speed on Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier. Nature 432, 608–610 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Luckman, A., Murray, T., de Lange, R. & Hanna, E. Rapid and synchronous ice-dynamic changes in East Greenland. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L03503 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Howat, I. M., Joughin, I. & Scambos, T. A. Rapid changes in ice discharge from Greenland Outlet Glaciers. Science 315, 1559–1561 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Box, J.E., Yang, L., Browmich, D.H & Bai, L-S. Greenland ice sheet surface air temperature variability: 1840–2007. J. Clim. 22, 4029–4049 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Holland, D. M., Thomas, R. H., de Young, B., Ribergaard, M. H. & Lyberth, B. Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbrae triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters. Nature Geosci. 1, 659–664 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Murray, T. et al. Ocean regulation hypothesis for glacier dynamics in southeast Greenland and implications for ice sheet mass changes. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F03026 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Joughin, I. et al. Ice-front variation and tidewater behavior on Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq Glaciers, Greenland. J. Geophys. Res. 113, F01004 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Nick, F. M., Vieli, A., Howat, I., M. & Joughin, I. Large-scale changes in Greenland outlet glacier dynamics triggered at the terminus. Nature Geosci. 2, 110–114 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Straneo, F. et al. Rapid circulation of warm subtropical waters in a major glacial fjord in East Greenland. Nature Geosci. 3, 182–186 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Straneo, F. et al. Impact of fjord dynamics and glacial runoff on the circulation near Helheim Glacier. Nature Geosci. 4, 322–327 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Mernild, S. H. et al. Freshwater flux to Sermilik Fjord, SE Greenland. Cryosphere 4, 453–465 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Syvitski, J. P. M., Andrews, J. T. & Dowdeswell, J. A. Sediment deposition in an iceberg-dominated glacimarine environment, East Greenland: basin fill implications. Glob. Planet. Change 12, 251–270 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Dowdeswell, J. A. et al. An origin for laminated glacimarine sediments through sea-ice build-up and suppressed iceberg rafting. Sedimentology 47, 557–576 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Mugford, R. I. & Dowdeswell, J. A. Modeling iceberg-rafted sedimentation in high-latitude fjord environments. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F03024 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Amundson, J. M. et al. Ice mélange dynamics and implications for terminus stability, Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F01005 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Jennings, A. E. & Weiner, N. J. Environmental changes in eastern Greenland during the last 1300 years: Evidence from foraminifera and lithofacies changes in Nansen Fjord, 68° N. Holocene 6, 179–191 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Zwally, H. J. et al. Surface melt induced acceleration of Greenland ice-sheet flow. Science 297, 218–222 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Andersen, M. L. et al. Spatial and temporal melt variability at Helheim Glacier, East Greenland, and its effect on ice dynamics. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F04041 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Benn, D. I., Hulton, N. R. J. & Mottram, R. H. ‘Calving laws’, ‘sliding laws’ and the stability of tidewater glaciers. Ann. Glaciol. 46, 123–130 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Motyka, R. J. et al. Submarine Melting of the 1985 Jakobshavn Isbrae Floating Ice Tongue and the triggering of the current retreat. J. Geophys. Res. 116, F01007 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Thomas, R. H. et al. Substantial thinning of a major east Greenland outlet glacier. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 1291–1294 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Schmith, T. & Hansen, C. Fram strait ice export during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reconstructed from a multiyear sea ice index from Southwestern Greenland. J. Clim. 16, 2782–2791 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Cappelen, J. (ed.) DMI Daily Climate Data Collection 1873–2010, Denmark, The Faroe Islands and Greenland—Including Air Pressure Observations 1874–2010 (WASA Data Sets) DMI Technical Report 11–06 (DMI, 2011).

  26. Hurrell, J. W. Decadal trends in the North Atlantic Oscillation: Regional temperatures and precipitation. Science 269, 676–679 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Warren, C. R. Iceberg calving and the glacioclimatic record. Prog. Phys. Geogr. 16, 253–282 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Schlesinger, M. E. & Ramankutty, N. An oscillation in the global climate system of period 65–70 years. Nature 367, 723–726 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Dickson, et al. The Arctic Ocean response to the North Atlantic Oscillation. J. Clim. 13, 2671–2696 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Belkin, I. M. Propagation of the ‘Great Salinity Anomaly’ of the 1990s around the northern North Atlantic. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L08306 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Camilla S. Andresen.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 2656 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing