Intense rainfall events significantly affect Alpine and Alaskan glaciers through enhanced melting, ice-flow acceleration and subglacial sediment erosion, yet their impact on the Greenland ice sheet has not been assessed. Here we present measurements of ice velocity, subglacial water pressure and meteorological variables from the western margin of the Greenland ice sheet during a week of warm, wet cyclonic weather in late August and early September 2011. We find that extreme surface runoff from melt and rainfall led to a widespread acceleration in ice flow that extended 140 km into the ice-sheet interior. We suggest that the late-season timing was critical in promoting rapid runoff across an extensive bare ice surface that overwhelmed a subglacial hydrological system in transition to a less-efficient winter mode. Reanalysis data reveal that similar cyclonic weather conditions prevailed across southern and western Greenland during this time, and we observe a corresponding ice-flow response at all land- and marine-terminating glaciers in these regions for which data are available. Given that the advection of warm, moist air masses and rainfall over Greenland is expected to become more frequent in the coming decades, our findings portend a previously unforeseen vulnerability of the Greenland ice sheet to climate change.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Nature Communications Open Access 30 November 2022
Nature Communications Open Access 11 November 2022
Nature Climate Change Open Access 29 August 2022
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 print issues and online access
$259.00 per year
only $21.58 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Hanna, E. et al. Ice-sheet mass balance and climate change. Nature 498, 51–59 (2013).
Vaughan, D. G. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) Ch. 4 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).
van den Broeke, M. et al. Partitioning recent Greenland mass loss. Science 326, 984–986 (2009).
Schuenemann, K. C. & Cassano, J. J. Changes in synoptic weather patterns and Greenland precipitation in the 20th and 21st centuries: 2. Analysis of 21st century atmospheric changes using self-organizing maps. J. Geophys. Res. 115, D05108 (2010).
Vavrus, S. J. Extreme Arctic cyclones in CMIP5 historical simulations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 6208–6212 (2013).
Andrews, L. C. et al. Direct observations of evolving subglacial drainage beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. Nature 514, 80–83 (2014).
Bartholomew, I. et al. Seasonal evolution of subglacial drainage and acceleration in a Greenland outlet glacier. Nature Geosci. 3, 408–411 (2010).
Bartholomew, I. et al. Seasonal variations in Greenland Ice Sheet motion: Inland extent and behaviour at higher elevations. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 307, 271–278 (2011).
Bartholomew, I. et al. Short-term variability in Greenland Ice Sheet motion forced by time-varying meltwater drainage: Implications for the relationship between subglacial drainage system behavior and ice velocity. J. Geophys. Res. 117, F03002 (2012).
Colgan, W. et al. The annual glaciohydrology cycle in the ablation zone of the Greenland ice sheet: Part 1. Hydrology model. J. Glaciol. 57, 697–709 (2011).
Hoffman, M. J., Catania, G. A., Neumann, T. A., Andrews, L. C. & Rumrill, J. A. Links between acceleration, melting, and supraglacial lake drainage of the western Greenland Ice Sheet. J. Geophys. Res. 116, F04035 (2011).
Schoof, C. Ice-sheet acceleration driven by melt water supply variability. Nature 468, 803–806 (2010).
Sole, A. et al. Winter motion mediates dynamic response of the Greenland Ice Sheet to warmer summers. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 3940–3944 (2013).
Zwally, J. H. et al. Surface melt-induced acceleration of Greenland ice-sheet flow. Science 297, 218–222 (2002).
Cappelen, J., Jørgensen, B. V., Laursen, E. V., Stannius, L. S. & Thomsen, R. S. The Observed Climate of Greenland, 1958–99—with Climatological Standard Normals, 1961–90 Technical Report 00-18 (Danish Meteorological Institute, 2001); http://www.dmi.dk/fileadmin/user_upload/Rapporter/TR/2000/tr00-18.pdf
Gascon, G., Sharp, M. & Bush, A. Changes in melt season characteristics on Devon Ice Cap, Canada, and their association with the Arctic atmospheric circulation. Ann. Glaciol. 54, 101–110 (2013).
van den Broeke, M. R., Smeets, C. J. J. P. & van de Wal, R. S. W. The seasonal cycle and interannual variability of surface energy balance and melt in the ablation zone of the west Greenland ice sheet. Cryosphere 5, 377–390 (2011).
van de Wal, R. S. W. et al. Twenty-one years of mass balance observations along the K-transect, West Greenland. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 4, 31–35 (2012).
Mernild, S. H. & Liston, G. E. Surface melt extent for the Greenland Ice Sheet, 2011. Geogr. Tidsskr. 112, 84–88 (2012).
Fudge, T. J., Harper, J. T., Humphrey, N. F. & Pfeffer, W. T. Rapid glacier sliding, reverse ice motion and subglacial water pressure during an autumn rainstorm. J. Glaciol. 50, 101–107 (2009).
O’Neel, S., Echelmeyer, K. A. & Motyka, R. J. Short-term flow dynamics of a retreating tidewater glacier: LeConte Glacier, Alaska U.S.A. J. Glaciol. 47, 567–578 (2001).
Chandler, D. M. et al. Evolution of the subglacial drainage system beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet revealed by tracers. Nature Geosci. 6, 195–198 (2013).
Meierbachtol, T., Harper, J. & Humphrey, N. Basal drainage system response to increasing surface melt on the Greenland ice sheet. Science 341, 777–779 (2013).
Iken, A. The effect of the subglacial water pressure on the sliding velocity of a glacier in an idealized numerical model. J. Glaciol. 27, 407–421 (1981).
Serreze, M., Box, J., Barry, R. & Walsh, J. Characteristics of Arctic synoptic activity, 1952–1989. Meteorol. Atmos. Phys. 51, 147–164 (1993).
van den Broeke, M., Smeets, P., Ettema, J. & Munneke, P. K. Surface radiation balance in the ablation zone of the west Greenland ice sheet. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D13105 (2008).
Kalnay, E. et al. The NCEP/NCAR 40-year reanalysis project. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 77, 437–471 (1996).
Chen, Q.-s., Bromwich, D. H. & Bai, L. Precipitation over Greenland retrieved by a dynamic method and its relation to cyclonic activity. J. Clim. 10, 839–870 (1997).
Schuenemann, K. C., Cassano, J. J. & Finnis, J. Synoptic forcing of precipitation over Greenland: Climatology for 1961–99. J. Hydrometeorol. 10, 60–78 (2009).
Ahlstrøm, A. P. et al. Seasonal velocities of eight major marine-terminating outlet glaciers of the Greenland ice sheet from continuous in situ GPS instruments. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 5, 277–287 (2013).
Joughin, I., Smith, B., Howat, I. & Scambos, T. MEaSUREs Greenland Ice Velocity: Selected Glacier Site Velocity Maps from InSAR (NASA National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2011); http://dx.doi.org/10.5067/MEASURES/CRYOSPHERE/nsidc-0481.001
Joughin, I. et al. Seasonal speedup along the western flank of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Science 320, 781–783 (2008).
Palmer, S., Shepherd, A., Nienow, P. & Joughin, I. Seasonal speedup of the Greenland Ice Sheet linked to routing of surface water. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 302, 423–428 (2011).
van de Wal, R. S. W. et al. Large and rapid melt-induced velocity changes in the ablation zone of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Science 321, 111–113 (2008).
Tedstone, A. J. et al. Greenland ice sheet motion insensitive to exceptional meltwater forcing. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 19719–19724 (2013).
van de Wal, R. S. W. et al. Self-regulation of ice flow varies across the ablation area in south-west Greenland. Cryosphere 9, 603–611 (2015).
Gudmundsson, G. H. et al. High-resolution measurements of spatial and temporal variations in surface velocities of Unteraargletscher, Bernese Alps, Switzerland. Ann. Glaciol. 31, 63–68 (2000).
Burgess, E. W., Larsen, C. F. & Forster, R. R. Summer melt regulates winter glacier flow speeds throughout Alaska. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 6160–6164 (2013).
Dow, C. F., Kulessa, B., Rutt, I. C., Doyle, S. H. & Hubbard, A. Upper bounds on subglacial channel development for interior regions of the Greenland ice sheet. J. Glaciol. 60, 1044–1052 (2014).
Dow, C. F. et al. Modeling of subglacial hydrological development following rapid supraglacial lake drainage. J. Geophys. Res. 2014JF003333 (2015).
Doyle, S. H. et al. Persistent flow acceleration within the interior of the Greenland ice sheet. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 899–905 (2014).
Bougamont, M. et al. Sensitive response of the Greenland Ice Sheet to surface melt drainage over a soft bed. Nature Commun. 5, 5052 (2014).
Bintanja, R. & Selten, F. M. Future increases in Arctic precipitation linked to local evaporation and sea-ice retreat. Nature 509, 479–482 (2014).
Fettweis, X., Belleflamme, A., Erpicum, M., Franco, B. & Nicolay, S. in Climate Change: Geophysical Foundations and Ecological Effects (eds Blanco, J. & Kheradmand, H.) 503–520 (InTech, 2011).
Franco, B., Fettweis, X. & Erpicum, M. Future projections of the Greenland Ice Sheet energy balance driving the surface melt. Cryosphere 7, 1–18 (2013).
Box, J. E. et al. Greenland ice sheet albedo feedback: Thermodynamics and atmospheric drivers. Cryosphere 6, 821–839 (2012).
IPCC Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).
King, M. Rigorous GPS data-processing strategies for glaciological applications. J. Glaciol. 50, 601–607 (2004).
Chen, G. GPS Kinematic Positioning for the Airborne Laser Altimetry at Long Valley, California (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998).
Dow, J. M., Neilan, R. E. & Rizos, C. The International GNSS Service in a changing landscape of Global Navigation Satellite Systems. J. Geod. 83, 191–198 (2009).
Den Ouden, M. A. G. et al. Stand-alone single-frequency GPS ice velocity observations on Nordenskioldbreen, Svalbard. Cryosphere 4, 593–604 (2010).
Walter, J. I. et al. Oceanic mechanical forcing of a marine-terminating Greenland glacier. Ann. Glaciol. 53, 181–192 (2012).
Krieger, G. et al. TanDEM-X: A satellite formation for high-resolution SAR interferometry. IEEE Trans. Geosci. Remote Sensing 45, 3317–3341 (2007).
Strozzi, T., Luckman, A., Murray, T., Wegmuller, U. & Werner, C. L. Glacier motion estimation using SAR offset-tracking procedures. IEEE Trans. Geosci. Remote Sensing 40, 2384–2391 (2002).
Joughin, I., Smith, B. E., Howat, I. M., Scambos, T. & Moon, T. Greenland flow variability from ice-sheet-wide velocity mapping. J. Glaciol. 56, 415–430 (2010).
Smeets, C. J. P. P. et al. Instruments and methods—A wireless subglacial probe for deep ice applications. J. Glaciol. 58, 841–848 (2012).
van As, D. et al. Large surface meltwater discharge from the Kangerlussuaq sector of the Greenland ice sheet during the record-warm year 2010 explained by detailed energy balance observations. Cryosphere 6, 199–209 (2012).
van As, D. Warming, glacier melt and surface energy budget from weather station observations in the Melville Bay region of northwest Greenland. J. Glaciol. 57, 208–220 (2011).
Cappelen, J. et al. Weather Observations from Greenland 1958–2012 Technical Report 13-11 (Danish Meteorological Institute, 2013); http://www.dmi.dk/fileadmin/Rapporter/TR/tr13-11.pdf
Alexandersson, H. Korrektion av Nederbord Enligt Enkel Klimatologisk Metodik (Meteorologi Nr 111, SMHI, 2003)
Johansson, E. et al. Hydrological and meteorological investigations in a periglacial lake catchment near Kangerlussuaq, west Greenland—presentation of a new multi-parameter dataset. Earth Syst. Sci. Data 7, 93–108 (2015).
Ambach, W. The influence of cloudiness on the net radiation balance of a snow surface with high albedo. J. Glaciol. 13, 73–84 (1974).
Bennartz, R. et al. July 2012 Greenland melt extent enhanced by low-level liquid clouds. Nature 496, 83–86 (2013).
van den Broeke, M. et al. Partitioning of melt energy and meltwater fluxes in the ablation zone of the west Greenland ice sheet. Cryosphere 2, 179–189 (2008).
Hock, R. Glacier melt: A review of processes and their modelling. Prog. Phys. Geogr. 29, 362–391 (2005).
Pryor, S. C. & Schoof, J. T. Changes in the seasonality of precipitation over the contiguous USA. J. Geophys. Res. 113, D21108 (2008).
Walsh, R. P. D. & Lawler, D. M. Rainfall seasonality: Description, spatial patterns and change through time. Weather 36, 201–208 (1981).
Christensen, O. B. et al. The HIRHAM Regional Climate Model Version 5 Technical Report 06-17 (Danish Meteorological Institute, 2006); http://www.dmi.dk/fileadmin/Rapporter/TR/tr06-17.pdf
Dee, D. P. et al. The ERA-Interim reanalysis: Configuration and performance of the data assimilation system. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 137, 553–597 (2011).
van de Wal, R. S. W., Greurell, W., van den Broeke, M. R., Reijmer, C. H. & Oerlemans, J. Surface mass-balance observations and automatic weather station data along a transect near Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Ann. Glaciol. 42, 311–316 (2005).
Lucas-Picher, P. et al. Very high resolution regional climate model simulations over Greenland: Identifying added value. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D02108 (2012).
This research was financially supported by: SKB/Posiva through the Greenland Analogue Project (GAP); UK National Environment Research Council (NERC) grants NE/G005796/1, NE/G010595/1, NE/H024204/1; a Royal Geographical Society Gilchrist Fieldwork Award; and The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NOW/PPP)—the last of which generously supported the K-transect measurements. TanDEM-X data were provided by the German Aerospace centre (DLR) within the framework of the XTI_GLAC0433 project. We thank UNAVCO, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Danish Meteorological Institute, MIT, J. Cappellen, R. Pettersson, K. Lindback and A. Fitzpatrick for help with data collection and processing. The crew of SV Gambo are thanked for help in the deployment of the Store Glacier GPS. A.H. and H.P. were supported at the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate by funding from the Research Council of Norway (Grant No. 223259). S.H.D. was supported by an Aberystwyth University doctoral scholarship and NERC grant NE/K006126.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Doyle, S., Hubbard, A., van de Wal, R. et al. Amplified melt and flow of the Greenland ice sheet driven by late-summer cyclonic rainfall. Nature Geosci 8, 647–653 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2482
This article is cited by
Nature Climate Change (2023)
Nature Geoscience (2023)
Nature Climate Change (2022)
Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (2022)
Nature Communications (2022)