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Oceanic transport of surface meltwater from the southern Greenland ice sheet


The Greenland ice sheet has undergone accelerating mass losses during recent decades. Freshwater runoff from ice melt can influence fjord circulation and dynamics1 and the delivery of bioavailable micronutrients to the ocean2. It can also have climate implications, because stratification in the adjacent Labrador Sea may influence deep convection and the strength of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation3. Yet, the fate of the meltwater in the ocean remains unclear. Here, we use a high-resolution ocean model to show that only 1–15% of the surface meltwater runoff originating from southwest Greenland is transported westwards. In contrast, up to 50–60% of the meltwater runoff originating from southeast Greenland is transported westwards into the northern Labrador Sea, leading to significant salinity and stratification anomalies far from the coast. Doubling meltwater runoff, as predicted in future climate scenarios, results in a more-than-double increase in anomalies offshore that persists further into the winter. Interannual variability in offshore export of meltwater is tightly related to variability in wind forcing. The new insight that meltwaters originating from the west and east coasts have different fates indicates that future changes in mass loss rates and surface runoff will probably impact the ocean differently, depending on their Greenland origins.

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Figure 1: Mean circulation.
Figure 2: Transport pathways of meltwater in the ocean around Greenland.
Figure 3: Offshore export of meltwater in the Labrador Sea.
Figure 4: Interannual variability in the Labrador Sea.


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We thank J. T. Hollibaugh for valuable comments and suggestions, which led to a greatly improved manuscript. We gratefully acknowledge support by NASA (NNX14AD98G, NNX14AM70G and NNX13AD80G). Additional support was provided by NSF (PLR-01304807 and OCE-1357373).

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Authors and Affiliations



H.L. and R.M.C. conceived and designed the research; H.L. ran the model; A.K.R., M.T., A.B., P.L.Y. and T.L.M. contributed materials/analysis tools; H.L. and R.M.C. analysed the data/model outputs and wrote the paper; all authors commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Renato M. Castelao.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Luo, H., Castelao, R., Rennermalm, A. et al. Oceanic transport of surface meltwater from the southern Greenland ice sheet. Nature Geosci 9, 528–532 (2016).

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