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Rapid submarine melting of the calving faces of West Greenland glaciers


Widespread glacier acceleration has been observed in Greenland in the past few years1,2,3,4 associated with the thinning of the lower reaches of the glaciers as they terminate in the ocean5,6,7. These glaciers thin both at the surface, from warm air temperatures, and along their submerged faces in contact with warm ocean waters8. Little is known about the rates of submarine melting9,10,11 and how they may affect glacier dynamics. Here we present measurements of ocean currents, temperature and salinity near the calving fronts of the Eqip Sermia, Kangilerngata Sermia, Sermeq Kujatdleq and Sermeq Avangnardleq glaciers in central West Greenland, as well as ice-front bathymetry and geographical positions. We calculate water-mass and heat budgets that reveal summer submarine melt rates ranging from 0.7±0.2 to 3.9±0.8 m d−1. These rates of submarine melting are two orders of magnitude larger than surface melt rates, but comparable to rates of iceberg discharge. We conclude that ocean waters melt a considerable, but highly variable, fraction of the calving fronts of glaciers before they disintegrate into icebergs, and suggest that submarine melting must have a profound influence on grounding-line stability and ice-flow dynamics.

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Figure 1: Bathymetry and location of study area.
Figure 2: A simplified two-layer model of forced convective flow in a glacier fjord.
Figure 3: Water characteristics in three West Greenland glacial fjords.


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This work was carried out at the Earth System Science Department of Physical Sciences, University of California, Irvine and at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Cryospheric Science Program. We thank B. Hallet, K. Steffen, E. Domack and S. Tulacyk for their generous loan of oceanographic equipment used, and J. Box and J. Ettema for providing estimates of summer 2008 runoff.

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All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. E.R. led the analysis, development of the paper and integration of the results with other data. M.K. analysed the ocean data and the ice-front bathymetry. I.V. helped collect and analyse the ocean data.

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Correspondence to Eric Rignot.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Rignot, E., Koppes, M. & Velicogna, I. Rapid submarine melting of the calving faces of West Greenland glaciers. Nature Geosci 3, 187–191 (2010).

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