Melting at the base of the Greenland ice sheet explained by Iceland hotspot history


Ice-penetrating radar1,2,3 and ice core drilling4 have shown that large parts of the north-central Greenland ice sheet are melting from below. It has been argued that basal ice melt is due to the anomalously high geothermal flux1,4 that has also influenced the development of the longest ice stream in Greenland1. Here we estimate the geothermal flux beneath the Greenland ice sheet and identify a 1,200-km-long and 400-km-wide geothermal anomaly beneath the thick ice cover. We suggest that this anomaly explains the observed melting of the ice sheet’s base, which drives the vigorous subglacial hydrology3 and controls the position of the head of the enigmatic 750-km-long northeastern Greenland ice stream5. Our combined analysis of independent seismic, gravity and tectonic data6,7,8,9 implies that the geothermal anomaly, which crosses Greenland from west to east, was formed by Greenland’s passage over the Iceland mantle plume between roughly 80 and 35 million years ago. We conclude that the complexity of the present-day subglacial hydrology and dynamic features of the north-central Greenland ice sheet originated in tectonic events that pre-date the onset of glaciation in Greenland by many tens of millions of years.

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Figure 1: Predicted GF at 5 km below the bedrock surface.
Figure 2: Geophysical data indicating lithosphere anomalies beneath Greenland.
Figure 3: Predicted basal thermal state of the present-day GIS.


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This study is part of the multinational research initiative IceGeoHeat. We thank C. F. Maule for sharing the map of Curie depths with us and W. Chu and R. Bell for providing us with their modelled subglacial hydrology network. We also greatly appreciate the suggestions of A. Newton, T. Gerya and J. X. Mitrovica on how to improve the manuscript. This work was partly supported by Netherlands Research Centre for Integrated Solid Earth Sciences (grants ISES-NorMar-2.6 and ISES-UU-PC-cluster), the German Research Foundation (grant PE 2167/1-1) and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, PalMod project.

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I.R. developed the concept. I.R. and A.G.P. designed and performed all numerical experiments. I.R. and A.P.M.V. wrote the manuscript, with the assistance of A.G.P., B.S. and J.V.J. A.G.P. analysed the seismic tomography models provided by F.R. and I.K., prepared the map of crustal thickness, assembled the measured GF values from the continental shelf of Greenland and prepared and described the materials related to the model set-up and thermal state of the Greenland lithosphere. B.S. prepared and described the materials related to existing plume track reconstructions and contributed to the design of the Supplementary Information. J.V.J. tested the GF map using his high-resolution Greenland ice sheet model VarGlaS. M.K.K. performed the analysis of the observed gravity data. All authors contributed to discussions and interpretations of the results.

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Correspondence to Irina Rogozhina.

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Rogozhina, I., Petrunin, A., Vaughan, A. et al. Melting at the base of the Greenland ice sheet explained by Iceland hotspot history. Nature Geosci 9, 366–369 (2016).

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