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Rapid circulation of warm subtropical waters in a major glacial fjord in East Greenland


The recent rapid increase in mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet1,2 is primarily attributed to an acceleration of outlet glaciers3,4,5. One possible cause of this acceleration is increased melting at the ice–ocean interface6,7, driven by the synchronous warming8,9,10 of subtropical waters offshore of Greenland. However, because of the lack of observations from Greenland’s glacial fjords and our limited understanding of their dynamics, this hypothesis is largely untested. Here we present oceanographic data collected in Sermilik Fjord, East Greenland, by ship in summer 2008 and from moorings. Our data reveal the presence of subtropical waters throughout the fjord. These waters are continuously replenished through a wind-driven exchange with the shelf, where they are present all year. The temperature and renewal of these waters indicate that they currently cause enhanced submarine melting at the glacier terminus. Key controls on the melting rate are the volume and properties of the subtropical waters on the shelf, and the patterns of along-shore winds, suggesting that the glaciers’ acceleration has been triggered by a combination of atmospheric and oceanic changes. Our measurements provide evidence for a rapid advective pathway for the transmission of oceanic variability to the ice-sheet margins.

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Figure 1: Circulation around southeast Greenland and Sermilik Fjord.
Figure 2: Measurements in Sermilik Fjord in summer 2008 and the three water masses, GM, PW and STW.
Figure 3: Seasonal temperature variation on the East Greenland Shelf from tagged hooded seals.
Figure 4: Along-shore winds in Sermilik Fjord.

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We thank J. Ryder and A. Jorgensen for support in the field work, J. Kemp for logistic support, D. Torres, K. Newhall, S. Worrilow and A. Newhall for instrument preparation, R. S. Pickart. S. Lentz and R. Curry for discussions and Greenpeace International and the crew of the Arctic Sunrise for support in 2009 mooring recovery. F.S. acknowledges support from WHOI’s Ocean and Climate Change Institute’s Arctic Research Initiative and from NSF OCE 0751896, and G.S.H. and L.A.S. from NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Program. Funding for the hooded seal deployments was obtained from the International Governance and Atlantic Seal Research Program, Fisheries and Oceans, Canada, to G.B.S. and from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources to A.R.-A.

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F.S. and G.S.H. conceived the study, F.S., D.A.S., L.A.S. and G.S.H. participated in the collection of oceanographic data in Sermilik Fjord, and F.S. and D.A.S. were responsible for the analysis. M.O.H., G.B.S. and A.R.-A. were responsible for the capture of the seals and deployment of the transmitter and F.D. for processing the data from the seals.

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Correspondence to Fiammetta Straneo, David A. Sutherland or Leigh A. Stearns.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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

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