Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Instability of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream over the last 45,000 years


The sensitivity of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS) to prolonged warm periods is largely unknown and geological records documenting such long-term changes are needed to place current observations in perspective. Here we use cosmogenic surface exposure and radiocarbon ages to determine the magnitude of NEGIS margin fluctuations over the last 45 kyr (thousand years). We find that the NEGIS experienced slow early Holocene ice-margin retreat of 30–40 m a−1, likely as a result of the buttressing effect of sea-ice or shelf-ice. The NEGIS was ~20–70 km behind its present ice-extent ~41–26 ka and ~7.8–1.2 ka; both periods of high orbital precession index and/or summer temperatures within the projected warming for the end of this century. We show that the NEGIS was smaller than present for approximately half of the last ~45 kyr and is susceptible to subtle changes in climate, which has implications for future stability of this ice stream.


Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) mass loss has doubled since the beginning of the 20th century1. A prominent feature of the GrIS is the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS)2,3, which constitutes an ~600-km-long ice stream that drains ~12% of the interior GrIS via three fast-flowing marine-terminating outlet glaciers: Nioghalvfjerdsfjord Gletscher (NG), Zachariae Isstrøm (ZI), and Storstrømmen Gletscher (SG) (Fig. 1). From 2006 to 2012, the NG and ZI accelerated and retreated after more than a decade of stability4. ZI accelerated further in 2012 when its ice velocity tripled, losing its residual ice shelf5. Presently, ZI is rapidly retreating along a reverse-sloped marine-based bed, whereas NG is retreating slower along an upward-sloping bed5. In contrast, SG is at present relatively stable and in a phase of buildup4 following its 1978–1984 surge6. Modeling studies of NEGIS using different warming scenarios suggest that NG will not change significantly, whereas ZI will continue fast and unstoppable retreat 30 km upstream of its current position, contributing ~16.2 mm to global-mean sea-level rise by 2100 C.E.7. Then the ice margin will stabilize on a topographic ridge unless frontal summer melt rates exceed 6 m day−1, which would trigger further inland retreat; this is a forcing that is within the range of the possible Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios7. To assess these modern observations and modeling scenarios, as well as the possibilities of future NEGIS collapse, a long-term perspective is urgently needed to understand the (in)stability of the NEGIS.

Fig. 1

Field location of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream. a Map with minimum and maximum LGM ice extent8, and velocity map of the inland ice69. Orange circles are sites with existing 14C dates reworked in Little Ice Age moraines or from raised marine deposits presently dammed by NEGIS27,28. b Inset map with bed topography, merged from existing topographic and bathymetric data with mass conservation (beneath grounded ice) and gravity inversion (beneath floating ice and open ocean)70. Outline of glacier margin is based on GIMP data71. The observed and modeled ice front and grounding line positions in 2014 C.E. and under maximum melting scenarios in 2100 C.E.7. New cosmogenic surface exposure ages (yellow circles) in ka (thousand years ago) from outer coast and proximal to the present ice margin in Northeast Greenland 78°N to 80°N. Red circles mark new 14C dates of reworked shell fragments from a moraine on Lambert Land

During the global Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; ~26–19 ka), the GrIS reached the continental shelf in Northeast Greenland, but it has been contentious whether it reached the shelf edge ~250–350 km from the present ice margin or remained on the inner shelf (Fig. 1a)8. High-resolution multibeam swath bathymetry and shallow seismic data from the shelf offshore of the NEGIS show a number of glacial landforms including mega-scale glacial lineations suggesting that the ice sheet margin extended to the shelf edge in Northeast Greenland9,10,11,12. The age of the landforms is, however, poorly constrained due to a lack of marine sediment cores from the area. It is assumed that they were formed during the LGM as they appear fresh and are not draped with significant sediment cover. Farther north at 81°N, the reduction in ice-rafted debris and lower sedimentation rates in marine sediment cores suggest that deglaciation from the shelf began ~20 ka13, whereas the shelf areas at Kejser Franz Josef Fjord (72°N) and Scoresby Sund (70°N) ~700–1000 km farther south experienced regional deglaciation ~17–19 ka8,14,15,16,17. Radiocarbon dates of postglacial marine shells from the coastline outside NEGIS indicate deglaciation around 9.7–9.1 ka; the later deglaciation of this area compared to adjacent areas to the north and south has been used to suggest more extensive glaciation reaching the shelf edge18. However, these 14C dates are only minimum-limiting ages, which are often significantly younger than 10Be ages of deglaciation in Greenland19. These limitations highlight the need for better age constraints to resolve the long-term ice-margin fluctuations of NEGIS.

Here we combine cosmogenic surface exposure ages (10Be) on glacial boulders with radiocarbon dates (14C) from reworked marine shells in moraines to reconstruct the last 45 kyr of NEGIS-margin fluctuations (see Methods). In addition, we investigate the climate forcings that may drive long-term ice-margin variability on these time scales. We find that the NEGIS experienced slow early Holocene ice-margin retreat of 30–40 m a−1 from the outer coast to the present ice margin, likely as a result of the buttressing effect of sea or shelf ice. We furthermore show that the NEGIS was smaller than present ~41–26 ka and ~7.8–1.2 ka, or approximately half of the last ~45 kyr as a result of air and ocean temperature forcings similar to or slightly higher than present.


The timing of early Holocene ice retreat

Cosmogenic exposure dating is a widely used method to constrain the timing of deglaciation in Greenland19,20,21,22,23,24,25. In this study, we use twenty-eight 10Be boulder ages to constrain the NEGIS retreat from the coastline to the present-day ice margin (60–100 km) in Northeast Greenland (77.4–79.4°N) during the last deglaciation (Fig. 1a, b). By assuming that the deglaciation of the outer coast to present ice margin was largely synchronous within the study site, we calculated the mean and standard error of the mean for 10Be ages at the coast and present ice margin (Methods and Supplementary Table 1 and Table 2). At the three coastal sites on Bourbon Øer, Storøen, and Kap Amélie, ten samples were dated. After excluding one outlier, we calculated a mean 10Be age of 11.7 ± 0.4 (0.6) ka (uncertainty in parentheses includes the production rate uncertainty). Adjacent to the present ice margins at Blåsø, Lambert Land, ZI, Søndre Mellemland, and Bloch Nunatakker we dated eighteen samples. With one outlier excluded, we obtained a mean deglaciation age of 9.3 ± 0.2 (0.4) ka. Our 10Be ages demonstrate that the deglaciation of the outer coast to present ice margin, a distance of 60–100 km, was completed within ~2.4 kyr at an average retreat rate of 30–40 m a−1.

The response of the NEGIS to a warmer climate

Radiocarbon dating of reworked marine material (shells or whale bones) in moraines is a method often used to infer times when the ice margins in Greenland were further inland than at present26,27,28,29. We have combined new and existing 14C dates from NEGIS’s three marine terminating outlet glaciers in the study area (Fig. 1a, b). Overall, there are two periods where the 14C dates show that the NEGIS was smaller than present during Marine Isotope Stage 3 (MIS 3) and the Holocene (Figs. 2 and 3). We present eight new 14C dates from Lambert Land adjacent to ZI ranging from 41.1 ± 0.5 to 26.3 ± 0.2 ka (Fig. 3b, Supplementary Table 3) that show that ZI retreated at least ~20 km inland from its 2014 position opening up for marine conditions farther inland. Four existing 14C dates from moraines adjacent to SG show that it was smaller than present at least 37.0 ± 1.0 to 28.4 ± 0.3 ka and open marine conditions extended at least ~40 km farther inland relative to present28. Based on the distribution of 14C ages from ZI and SG, it can be concluded that the NEGIS was continually retracted at least 20–40 km behind the present ice extent prior to ~41 ka and until after ~26 ka. Previously published radiocarbon dates of reworked shells and whale bones in Little Ice Age moraines and raised marine deposits likewise suggest that NEGIS was ~20–70 km farther inland than today ~7.8–1.2 ka, before it advanced to its Little Ice Age maximum in the 19th century27,28.

Fig. 2

Ice fluctuations and climate variability the last 15 kyr. a Reconstruction of ice-margin fluctuations based on b 10Be ages with external uncertainties from outer coast (dark gray) and outside the Little Ice Age moraine (black), and 14C dates from raised marine deposits presently dammed by NEGIS up to 70 km upstream the present ice margin at NG; Blåsø (blue)27 and Midgaardsormen (pink)27, and 14C dates of reworked shells in Little Ice Age moraines at Søndre Mellemland (green)27, and at SG (orange)28. Vertical gray bars are the mean and standard error of the outer (older) and inner (younger) 10Be ages with the production rate uncertainty included. Vertical light blue bar is when the NEGIS is smaller than present. The early Holocene ice-retreat coincides with c peak subsurface temperatures based on planktic foraminiferal fauna assemblages (SST100)32 and d peak summer temperature (JJA) (pink) at 79°N with RCP 2.6 (light blue), 4.5 (blue), and 8.5 scenarios (dark blue)31. e The timing of maximum mid-Holocene ice retreat coincides with local chironomid-based temperature maxima at Duck (black) and Hjort (grey) lakes on Store Koldeway in Northeast Greenland39. f Ice core δ18O record from NGRIP72

Fig. 3

Ice and climate fluctuations of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream for the last 45 kyr. a Reconstruction of ice-margin fluctuations based on b 10Be ages with external uncertainties from outer coast (dark gray) and outside the Little Ice Age moraine (black), and 14C dates from raised marine deposits presently dammed by NEGIS up to 70 km upstream the present ice margin at NG; Blåsø (blue)27 and Midgaardsormen (pink)27, and 14C dates of reworked shells in Little Ice Age moraines at Søndre Mellemland (green)27, and at SG (orange)28. Vertical gray bars are the mean and standard error of the outer (older) and inner (younger) 10Be ages with the production rate uncertainty included. Vertical light blue bars are when the NEGIS is smaller than present. c Reconstructed summer temperature (pink) with RCP 2.6 (light blue), 4.5 (blue), and 8.5 scenarios (dark blue) at 79°N31 and a summer temperatures reconstruction (magenta) based on a multiple-regression method (see Methods). df Orbital parameters and summer insolation at 79°N. g Accumulation rate at NEEM36. h Ice core δ18O record from NGRIP72


Our new 10Be ages demonstrate that deglaciation of the outer coast to the present ice margin occurred between 11.7 ± 0.6 and 9.3 ± 0.4 ka. This is ~2 kyr older than the oldest recorded 14C dates of ~9.7 ka from the outer coast18. The timing of early Holocene NEGIS retreat from the coast to its current extent generally coincides with both increased surface air and subsurface ocean temperatures (Fig. 2a–d). Summer surface air temperature reconstructed by merged ice-core data and climate models shows an abrupt rise in temperature at the Younger Dryas termination, coeval with the 10Be ages presented here for initial ice retreat from the coastline, followed by gradual warming to peak temperatures ~10–9 ka (Fig. 2d)30,31. In the Fram Strait, subsurface ocean warming is recorded slightly later ~10.8–10.1 ka, at a rate of ~0.5 °C per century and a peak Holocene temperature of ~6 °C at ~10.1 ka32 (Fig. 2c). We suggest that the combined effect of insolation-driven atmospheric/oceanic warming and abrupt atmospheric warming at the end of the Younger Dryas likely triggered NEGIS coastal to inland retreat.

The mean 10Be ages suggest that the deglaciation from the outer coast to the present ice margin occurred at a retreat rate of 30–40 m a−1. This estimate is slower than early Holocene retreat rates of ~100 m a−1 for Jakobshavn Isbræ in West Greenland25 and ~80 m a−1 for Helheim Glacier in Southeast Greenland21. It is striking that the marine-based parts of NEGIS only experienced moderate rates of ice retreat compared to other major GrIS outlet glaciers21,25. We attribute this to the buttressing effect of sea ice or shelf ice33, which was hinged on to islands off the coast in Northeast Greenland (Fig. 1) until ~9.5 ka34,35.

The 14C ages of reworked shells demonstrate that the NEGIS was retracted ~20–40 km during MIS 3 from ~41 to ~26 ka when ice-core data indicate that the mean-annual temperature was generally as cold as the LGM and accumulation rates (and therefore ice flow velocities) were 4–5 times slower than during the Holocene36 (Fig. 3g, h). However, as glaciers respond primarily to summer air temperatures37, we estimate local summer air temperatures at our site during MIS 3 using a multiple-regression method (see Methods). Approximately 41–26 ka estimated summer temperatures were ~6–8 °C warmer than the LGM primarily because of higher boreal summer insolation, but ~8–12 °C colder than the preindustrial period (Fig. 3c). The combination of relatively mild summers and low snow accumulation rates (Fig. 3c, g) seems to be a plausible explanation for the retracted NEGIS margin during MIS 3. The 14C dates from MIS 3 also provide a maximum age constraint for when the NEGIS began its advance toward its LGM position and show that the GrIS in this sector was larger than present after ~26 ka until 9.3 ± 0.4 ka (uncertainty including the production rate uncertainty), when the 10Be ages indicate that the areas in front of the present ice margin were again deglaciated. The timing of maximum LGM extent of NEGIS agrees with a Northeast Greenland marine record that places the ice margin on the continental shelf ~26–20 ka13.

Published 14C dates of marine shells and whale bones from the left-lateral margin of NG show that the floating ice margin was smaller than present extent and reached a minimum of at least 70 km behind its present extent ~7.8–4.6 ka27. At SG, reworked shells in Little Ice Age moraines suggest that it was smaller than present ~5.4–1.2 ka28. The timing of the retracted ice margin of the NEGIS outlet glaciers ~7.8–1.2 ka generally agrees with a smaller than present GrIS extent during the mid-Holocene thermal maximum seen in southern Greenland38. The timing of retracted NEGIS also coincides with local chironomid-based temperature maxima ~8–5 ka from Store Koldeway in Northeast Greenland39 and warm subsurface temperatures in Fram Strait32 (Fig. 2c, e). However, it is also concurrent with relatively high accumulation rates36, suggesting that the forcing of the mid-Holocene NEGIS retreat differs from that of MIS 3. Both periods of retracted NEGIS margins occurred during, or just after, periods of high orbital precession index (Fig. 3d–f), supporting the notion that precession forcing dominates the ice-sheet response on orbital time scales.

We compare our results with a recent state-of-the art modeling study, which suggests that the NG is difficult to destabilize when compared to the ZI and that bed topography plays a critical role in determining ice-margin responses to ocean warming7. The three-dimensional ice-sheet model is forced by constant surface mass balance and variable ocean forcing. It predicts that NG will likely keep its current configuration with the grounding line and the ice front close to its present location by 2100 C.E., even when the model is forced with high basal-melt rates and frontal-melt rates (Fig. 1b). Conversely, ZI is modeled to be more sensitive, with the simulations showing ~30 km ice-margin retreat before stabilization on a topographic ridge by 2100 C.E. unless frontal summer melt rates exceed 6 m day−1. This would trigger further inland retreat and the oceanic forcing is within the range of possible future scenarios7. The geologic data clearly demonstrate that both NG and ZI, as well as SG, retreated behind their present extents during the Holocene. These observations suggest that the model underestimates the sensitivity of NEGIS, and particularly the NG, to increased oceanic forcing. However even when the grounding line and ice velocity are stable, once the ice margin reaches a topographic ridge neither NG nor ZI reach a steady state and still lose mass over the entire duration of the simulation7. They could eventually retreat further inland on a longer time scale as demonstrated by the geological record.

In conclusion, we show that the NEGIS experienced major ice-margin fluctuations over the last ~45 kyr, ranging from ~250 to 350 km of ice advance beyond its present position during the LGM to ~20–40 km ice retreat behind its present extent during MIS 3 and ~70 km during the mid-Holocene. During the last ~45 kyr, the NEGIS was smaller than present at least half of the time. These observations present two scenarios that can drive NEGIS retreat within its current extent. Over the early Holocene, the instability of the largely marine-based NEGIS margin was triggered by a combination of air and ocean temperatures similar to today or within the projected scenarios (RCP4.5 to RCP8.5) for the end of this century (Fig. 2d). In contrast, the NEGIS retraction during MIS 3 was potentially due to a combination of lower accumulation/ice flow, elevated incident shortwave radiation, and attendant summer air temperature warming. Our results demonstrate that the NEGIS has responded sensitively to past climatic changes and that its current extent is an anomaly rather than the norm for the last ~45 kyr. These new geologic observations suggest that the NEGIS will continue to undergo ice-margin retreat and lose mass given the ongoing Arctic warming40 combined with the topographic setting of large deep fjords41 that allow subsurface water to reach and destabilize the ice front4,5,7.


Study area

The study area comprises the northern part of the East Greenland Caledonides and the bedrock is primarily composed of crystalline basement except for a few places on Lambert Land and north of Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden, where it is overlain by Paleoprotozoic or Proterozoic sediments42. Topographic relief ranges between 0 and 500 m but locally mountains are up to ~1000 m high. The landscape is characterized by selective linear erosion; signs of glacial erosion are significant, particularly at lower elevations. During the LGM, the ice sheet advanced on to the continental shelf in Northeast Greenland43,44,45, but it has been contentious whether it reached the shelf edge ~250–350 km from the present ice margin or remained on the inner shelf (Fig. 1a)8. High-resolution multibeam swath bathymetry and shallow seismic data from the shelf offshore NEGIS show a number of glacial landforms including mega-scale glacial lineations, suggesting that the ice extended all the way the shelf edge in Northeast Greenland9,10,11,12. According to the existing 14C-based deglaciation chronology, the outer coast was deglaciated ~9.7–9.5 ka27. Following the deglaciation, the land was inundated with marine limits of 40–60 m above sea level46.

Cosmogenic exposure dating

In 2015 and 2016 we conducted fieldwork using helicopter and twin otter plane. We selected field sites using aerial and satellite imagery. Most samples were collected from boulders perched on ice scoured bedrock, except for three samples from Kap Amelié collected from boulders on drift and on Lambert Land where we collected two boulder samples on a moraine outside the Little Ice Age moraine (Fig. 1b). We aimed at sampling glacially abraded boulders on bedrock (Supplementary Fig. 1), with boulders >1 m in height and diameter to reduce the influence of snow cover on our resulting ages47. We measured shielding, and recorded the latitude and longitude and elevation using a handheld GPS with an uncertainty of <10 m. The boulder samples were collected using a rock saw. All samples were prepared using carrier “PHE1601” and were measured using the beryllium standard 07KNSTD48 at Aarhus AMS Centre (AARAMS). We used the CRONUS-Earth online calculator49, the Arctic production rate50, and time invariant scaling of Lal/Stone51,52 to calculate sample ages (Supplementary Table 1, Table 2). In addition, we used a rock density of 2.7 g cm−3 and made no correction for potential snow cover, and surface erosion. The study area has undergone glaciostatic uplift since the deglaciation of ~40 m at Blåsø and ~60 m at Hovgaard Ø46, and the sample elevation at the time of collection does not reflect its time-averaged sample elevation history. We calculated sample-specific elevation corrections25 and found that the uplift corrections are within 1-sigma of the AMS sample uncertainties similar to or lower than what have been calculated for West Greenland where the postglacial uplift was larger24,25. As the uplift history in Northeast Greenland is less well constrained compared to West Greenland46 and the vertical uncertainty of the GPS measurement is of the same order as the uplift correction, we present 10Be ages without correcting for glaciostatic uplift, similar to most other 10Be studies from Greenland19,20,22,23,53,54. We note that the lack of this correction does not significantly change our 10Be ages or our interpretations. Individual 10Be ages are presented with their 1-sigma analytical uncertainties, which include the uncertainty in the blank correction. When we compare our 10Be ages with other climate records we include the production rate uncertainty using the following formula:

$$\begin{array}{l}{\mathrm{Uncertainty}} = \\ \sqrt {\left( {1\sigma \,{\mathrm{std}}\,{\mathrm{error}}\,{\mathrm{of}}\,{\mathrm{mean}}} \right)^2 + \left({\,}^{10}{\mathrm{Be}}\,{\mathrm{age}} \times {\mathrm{production}}\,{\mathrm{rate}}\,{\mathrm{uncertainty}}\right)^2} \end{array}$$
$$\begin{array}{l}{\mathrm{Uncertainty}}\,{\mathrm{of}}^{10}{\mathrm{Be}}\,{\mathrm{ages}},{\mathrm{outer}}\,{\mathrm{coast}} = \\ \sqrt {(0.4)^2 + \left( {11.7 \ast 0.037} \right)^2} = 0.6\,{\mathrm{kyr}},\end{array}$$

where 0.4 = 1σ standard error of the mean (in kyr), 11.7 = mean 10Be age (in ka); 0.037 = the uncertainty associated with the Arctic production rate50 and “St” scaling51,52.

$$\begin{array}{l}{\mathrm{Uncertainty}}\,{\mathrm{of}}\,^{10}{\mathrm{Be}}\,{\mathrm{ages}},{\mathrm{present}}\,{\mathrm{ice}}\,{\mathrm{margin}} = \\ \sqrt {(0.2)^2 + \left( {9.3 \ast 0.037} \right)^2} = 0.4\,{\mathrm{kyr}},\end{array}$$

where 0.2 = 1σ standard error of the mean (in kyr); 9.3 = mean 10Be age (in ka), 0.037 = the uncertainty associated with the Arctic production rate50 and “St” scaling51,52.

We excluded two outliers based on the most general knowledge of the regions glacial history that are older than the LGM (GL1519, GL1545) and most likely contain 10Be inherited from a previous period of exposure47.

Radiocarbon dating

A number of shell fragments were collected on the surface of a moraine outside the Little Ice Age moraine on Lambert Land. The shell fragments were identified to species level, when possible. Only large pieces from a single specimen were used for dating. In the laboratory, shell fragments were cleaned and leached using HCl removing c. 25% of the outer shell. Around 10 mg of material was used for the 14C analysis; all contained enough carbon for AMS radiocarbon measurement. All radiocarbon ages have been calibrated into calendar years using IntCal1355 and a reservoir age of 550 years (∆R = 150)56 in Oxcal 4.357. The 14C ages are reported with 2-sigma uncertainty (Supplementary Table 3).

Temperature reconstruction

Greenland ice cores provide detailed records on the timing and magnitude of past mean-annual temperature change. However, GrIS mass loss occurs during the summer months58, and therefore summer (JJA) temperatures are more relevant than mean-annual temperatures when considering past margin positions. For the last 22 kyr Greenland ice core δ15N-based temperature reconstructions59 were merged with climate model simulations60,61,62 to generate Greenland-wide, seasonally resolving temperature reconstructions31. Supplementary Fig. 2a shows the reconstructed mean-annual (ANN), summer (JJA), and winter (DJF) temperatures at our study location (79oN, 20oW). Coupled ocean atmosphere GCM simulations are not available through MIS 3; therefore the same approach cannot be used to investigate summer temperatures during that time period. Instead, we rely on a multiple regression approach in which it is assumed that three key forcings dominate the Greenland temperature evolution: AMOC strength, greenhouse gas radiative forcing, and local orbital forcing. Summer temperature at the site (TJJA) is then given by:

$$T_{\mathrm{JJA}} = a_1 \times {\mathrm{AMOC}} + a_2 \times 5.35\ln \frac{{p_{{\mathrm{CO}}_2}}}{280} + a_3 \times {\mathrm{\Phi}}_{\mathrm{JJA}}^{79^\circ {\mathrm{N}}},$$

where AMOC denotes the estimated strength of the overturning in Sv, \(p_{{\mathrm{CO}}_2}\) is the atmospheric CO2 dry mixing ratio in ppm, \({\mathrm{\Phi }}_{{\mathrm{JJA}}}^{79^\circ {\mathrm{N}}}\)is the average solar insolation at 79°N north during the months June, July, and August, and a1 through a3 are linear scaling coefficients. The CO2 mixing ratio is converted to radiative forcing using the approach by ref. 63, with a pre-industrial reference concentration of 280 ppm. All forcings are shown in Supplementary Figs. 2B-D. In reconstructing TJJA, we use a multi-ice core \(p_{{\mathrm{CO}}_2}\) compilation64, and insolation values calculated following ref. 65. The AMOC strength is the most uncertain of the three forcings and is reconstructed as follows. We start from the Greenland Summit66,67 δ18O record (average of GRIP and GISP2 δ18O records) corrected for mean ocean δ18O68, and convert it to site (mean annual) temperature using an effective isotope sensitivity of α = 0.29 ‰ K−159. Using the logic underlying Eq. 1, we remove the effect of CO2 forcing (b2 = 3.05 Km2 W−1) and insolation (b3 = 0.0481 Km2 W−1 sensitivity to local summer insolation) from the GISP2 temperatures, where the stated (annual mean) sensitivities were obtained from the single-forcing deglacial GCM simulations of ref. 61, in which greenhouse gas and orbital forcings were applied separately. It is then assumed that remaining temperature variability is due solely to AMOC variability, which we estimate using a sensitivity (mean annual) of b1 = 1.07 ± 0.25 K Sv−1, which optimizes the correlation to the reconstruction by ref. 31, as shown in Supplementary Fig. 2B. The NEGIS MIS 3 summer temperature anomaly is then estimated with Eq. 1 using coefficients a1 = 0.238 ± 0.1 K Sv−1, a2 = 3.76 ± 1.5 Km2 W−1, and a3 = 0.137 ± 0.03 Km2 W−1; these coefficients are found using multiple regression analysis on the 0-22ka NEGIS JJA reconstruction; the coefficients are in good agreement with those found from the single-forcing coupled GCM experiments of ref. 61. The MIS 3 JJA reconstruction is shown in Supplementary Fig. 2e, together with an uncertainty envelope that was found by adding all stated uncertainties in quadrature. We want to emphasize the large uncertainty inherent in trying to reconstruct both the AMOC and NEGIS summer temperature based on regression techniques—the resulting values should be considered an order-of-magnitude estimate.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the supplementary information or it can be acquired from the corresponding author on request.


  1. 1.

    Kjeldsen, K. K. et al. Spatial and temporal distribution of mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet since AD 1900. Nature 528, 396–401 (2015).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Joughin, I., Fahnestock, M., MacAyeal, D., Bamber, J. L. & Gogineni, P. Observation and analysis of ice flow in the largest Greenland ice stream. J. Geophys. Res.: Atmospheres 106, 34021–34034 (2001).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Reeh, N., Thomsen, H. H., Higgins, A. K. & Weidick, A. Sea ice and the stability of north and Northeast Greenland floating glaciers. Ann. Glaciol. 33, 474–480 (2001).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Khan, S. A. et al. Sustained mass loss of the Northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming. Nat. Climate Change 4, 292–299 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Mouginot, J. et al. Fast retreat of Zachariae Isstrom, Northeast Greenland. Science 350, 1357–1361 (2015).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Reeh, N., Bøggild, C. E. & Oerter, H. Surge if Storstrømmen, a large outlet glacier froom the inland ice of North-East Greenland. Rapp. Grønands Geol. Unders. 162, 201–209 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Choi, Y., Morlighem, M., Rignot, E., Mouginot, J. & Wood, M. Modeling the response of Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden and Zachariae Isstrøm Glaciers, Greenland, to ocean forcing over the next century. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 071–011,079 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Funder, S., Kjeldsen, K. K., Kjær, K. H. & Ó Cofaigh, C. The Greenland ice sheet during the last 300.000 years: a review. Dev. Quat. Sci. 15, 699–713 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Winkelmann, D., Jokat, W., Jensen, L. & Schenke, H. W. Submarine end moraines on the continental shelf off NE Greenland - implications for lateglacial dynamics. Quat. Sci. Rev. 29, 1069–1077 (2010).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Evans, J., Cofaigh, C. O., Dowdeswell, J. A. & Wadhams, P. Marine geophysical evidence for former expansion and flow of the Greenland ice sheet across the north-east Greenland continental shelf. J. Quat. Sci. 24, 279–293 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Arndt, J. E., Jokat, W. & Dorschel, B. The last glaciation and deglaciation of the Northeast Greenland continental shelf revealed by hydro-acoustic data. Quat. Sci. Rev. 160, 45–56 (2017).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Arndt, J. E. et al. A new bathymetry of the Northeast Greenland continental shelf: constraints on glacial and other processes. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 16, 3733–3753 (2015).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Nørgaard-Pedersen, N., Mikkelsen, N. & Kristoffersen, Y. Late glacial and Holocene marine records from the independence Fjord and Wandel sea regions, North Greenland. Polar Res. 27, 209–221 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    O Cofaigh, C. et al. Timing and significance of glacially influenced mass-wasting in the submarine channels of the Greenland basin. Mar. Geol. 207, 39–54 (2004).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Stein, R., Nam, S.I., Grobe, H. & Hubberten, H. in Late Quaternary Palaeoceanography of the North Atlantic Margins, Vol. 111 (eds Andrews, J. T. et al.) 135–151 (Special Publication-Geological Society of London, 1996).

  16. 16.

    Nam, S. I., Stein, R., Grobe, H. & Hubberten, H. Late quaternary glacial interglacial changes in sediment composition at the East Greenland continental-margin and their paleoceanographic implications. Mar. Geol. 122, 243–262 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17.

    Evans, J. et al. in Glacier-influenced Sedimentation on High-Latitude Continental Margins, Vol. 203 (eds Dowdeswell, J. A. & Cofaigh, C. Ó.) 149–179 (Special Publication-Geological Society of London, 2002).

  18. 18.

    Bennike, O. & Björck, S. Chronology of the last recession of the Greenland ice sheet. J. Quat. Sci. 17, 211–219 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Sinclair, G. et al. Diachronous retreat of the Greenland ice sheet during the last deglaciation. Quat. Sci. Rev. 145, 243–258 (2016).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Carlson, A. E. et al. Earliest Holocene South Greenland ice sheet retreat within its late Holocene extent. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 5514–5521 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Hughes, A. L. C. et al. Rapid response of Helheim Glacier, Southeast Greenland, to early Holocene climate warming. Geology 40, 427–430 (2012).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Larsen, N. K. et al. Rapid early Holocene ice retreat in West Greenland. Quat. Sci. Rev. 92, 310–323 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Rinterknecht, V. et al. Unstable ice stream in Greenland during the Younger Dryas cold event. Geology 42, 759–762 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24.

    Young, N. et al. Age of the Fjord Stade moraines in the Disko Bugt region, Western Greenland, and the 9.3 and 8.2 ka cooling events. Quat. Sci. Rev. 60, 76–90 (2013).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Young, N. E. et al. Response of Jakobshavn Isbrae Greenland, to Holocene climate change. Geology 39, 131–134 (2011).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Weidick, A., Kelly, M. & Bennike, O. Late quaternary development of the southern sector of the Greenland ice sheet, with particular reference to the Qassimiut lobe. Boreas 33, 284–299 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Bennike, O. & Weidick, A. Late quaternary history around Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden and Jokelbugten, North-East Greenland. Boreas 30, 205–227 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Weidick, A., Andreasen, C., Oerter, H. & Reeh, N. Neoglacial glacier changes around Storstrømmen, North-East Greenland. Polarforschung 64, 95–108 (1996).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Briner, J. P., Kaufman, D. S., Bennike, O. & Kosnik, M. A. Amino acid ratios in reworked marine bivalve shells constrain Greenland ice sheet history during the Holocene. Geology 42, 75–78 (2014).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    Lecavalier, B. S. et al. High Arctic Holocene temperature record from the Agassiz ice cap and Greenland ice sheet evolution. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 5952–5957 (2017).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  31. 31.

    Buizert, C. et al. Greenland-wide seasonal temperature reconstructions for the last deglaciation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 45, 1905–1914 (2018).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Werner, K. et al. Holocene sea subsurface and surface water masses in the Fram Strait - comparisons of temperature and sea-ice reconstructions. Quat. Sci. Rev. 147, 194–209 (2016).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    Amundson, J. M. et al. Ice melange dynamics and implications for terminus stability, Jakobshavn Isbrae Greenland. J. Geophys. Res.: Earth Surface 115, doi:Artn F01005 10.1029/2009jf001405 (2010).

  34. 34.

    Funder, S. et al. A 10,000-year record of Arctic Ocean sea-ice variability-view from the beach. Science 333, 747–750 (2011).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Muller, J., Masse, G., Stein, R. & Belt, S. T. Variability of sea-ice conditions in the Fram Strait over the past 30,000 years. Nat. Geosci. 2, 772–776 (2009).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Rasmussen, S. O. et al. A first chronology for the North Greenland Eemian ice drilling (NEEM) ice core. Climate Past 9, 2713–2730 (2013).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Oerlemans, J. Extracting a climate signal from 169 glacier records. Science 308, 675–677 (2005).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. 38.

    Larsen, N. K. et al. The response of the Southern Greenland ice sheet to the Holocene thermal maximum. Geology 43, 291–294 (2015).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Schmidt, S. et al. Chironomids as indicators of the Holocene climatic and environmental history of two lakes in Northeast Greenland. Boreas 40, 116–130 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. 40.

    IPCC. Climate Change 2013: the Physical Science Basis. 1535 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013).

  41. 41.

    Morlighem, M., Rignot, E., Mouginot, J., Seroussi, H. & Larour, E. Deeply incised submarine glacial valleys beneath the Greenland ice sheet. Nat. Geosci. 7, 418–422 (2014).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42.

    Higgins, A. K. Descriptive text to the geological map of Greenland, 1:500 000, Lambert land, sheet 9. Geol. Surv. Den. Greenl. Map Ser. 7, 1–32 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43.

    Landvik, J. Y. The last glaciation of Germania-Land and adjacent areas, Northeast Greenland. J. Quat. Sci. 9, 81–92 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. 44.

    Hjort, C. Glaciation in Northern East Greenland during the late Weichselian and early Flandrian. Boreas 8, 281–296 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45.

    Hjort, C. A glacial chronology for Northern East Greenland. Boreas 10, 259–274 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    Lecavalier, B. S. et al. A model of Greenland ice sheet deglaciation based on observations of ice extent and relative sea-level. Quat. Sci. Rev. 102, 54–84 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47.

    Gosse, J. C. & Phillips, F. M. Terrestrial in situ cosmogenic nuclides: theory and application. Quat. Sci. Rev. 20, 1475–1560 (2001).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  48. 48.

    Nishiizumi, K. et al. Absolute calibration of Be-10 AMS standards. Nucl. Instrum. Methods Phys. Res. Sect. B 258, 403–413 (2007).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  49. 49.

    Balco, G., Stone, J. O., Lifton, N. A. & Dunai, T. J. A complete and easily accessible means of calculating surface exposure ages or erosion rates from Be-10 and Al-26 measurements. Quat. Geochronol. 3, 174–195 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50.

    Young, N. E., Schaefer, J. M., Briner, J. P. & Goehring, B. M. A Be-10 production-rate calibration for the Arctic. J. Quat. Sci. 28, 515–526 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51.

    Lal, D. Cosmic-ray labelling of erosion surfaces: in situ nuclide production rates and erosion models. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 104, 424–439 (1991).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52.

    Stone, J. O. Air pressure and cosmogenic isotope production. J. Geophys. Res. 105, 23753–23759 (2000).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53.

    Larsen, N. K. et al. A younger Dryas re-advance of local glaciers in North Greenland. Quat. Sci. Rev. 147, 47–58 (2016).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  54. 54.

    Schweinsberg, A. D., Briner, J. P., Miller, G. H., Bennike, O. & Thomas, E. K. Local glaciation in West Greenland linked to North Atlantic Ocean circulation during the Holocene. Geology 45, 195–198 (2017).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  55. 55.

    Reimer, P. J. et al. IntCal13 and Marine13 radiocarbon age calibration curves 0–50,000 years cal BP. Radiocarbon 55, 1869–1887 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56.

    Mörner, N.-A. & Funder, S. C-14 dating of samples collected during teh NORQUA 86expedition, and notes on the marine reservoir effect. Medd. Om Grønl. 22, 57–59 (1990).

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57.

    Ramsey, C. B. Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 51, 337–360 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  58. 58.

    van den Broeke, M. et al. Partitioning recent Greenland mass loss. Science 326, 984–986 (2009).

    ADS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  59. 59.

    Buizert, C. et al. Greenland temperature response to climate forcing during the last deglaciation. Science 345, 1177–1180 (2014).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  60. 60.

    Liu, Z. et al. Transient simulation of last deglaciation with a new mechanism for Bolling-Allerod warming. Science 325, 310–314 (2009).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  61. 61.

    He, F. et al. Northern Hemisphere forcing of Southern Hemisphere climate during the last deglaciation. Nature 494, 81–85 (2013).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  62. 62.

    Liu, Z. Y. et al. Younger Dryas cooling and the Greenland climate response to CO2. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 11101–11104 (2012).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  63. 63.

    Myhre, G., Highwood, E. J., Shine, K. P. & Stordal, F. New estimates of radiative forcing due to well mixed greenhouse gases. Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 2715–2718 (1998).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  64. 64.

    Bereiter, B. et al. Revision of the EPICA Dome C CO2 record from 800 to 600kyr before present. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 542–549 (2015).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  65. 65.

    Berger, A. & Loutre, M. F. Insolation values for the climate of the last 10000000 years. Quat. Sci. Rev. 10, 297–317 (1991).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  66. 66.

    Johnsen, S. J. et al. Irregular glacial interstadials recorded in a new Greenland ice core. Nature 359, 311–313 (1992).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  67. 67.

    Grootes, P. M., Stuiver, M., White, J. W. C., Johnsen, S. & Jouzel, J. Comparison of oxygen-isotope records from the Gisp2 and Grip Greenland ice cores. Nature 366, 552–554 (1993).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  68. 68.

    Waelbroeck, C. et al. Sea-level and deep water temperature changes derived from benthic foraminifera isotopic records. Quat. Sci. Rev. 21, 295–305 (2002).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  69. 69.

    Mouginot, J., Rignot, E., Scheuchl, B. & Millan, R. Comprehensive annual ice sheet velocity mapping using Landsat-8, Sentinel-1, and RADARSAT-2Data. Remote Sens. 9, 364 (2017).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  70. 70.

    Morlighem, M. et al. BedMachinev3: complete bed topography and ocean bathymetry mapping of Greenland from multibeam echo sounding combined with mass conservation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 11051–11061 (2017).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  71. 71.

    Howat, I. M., Negrete, A. & Smith, B. E. The Greenland Ice Mapping Project (GIMP) land classification and surface elevation data sets. Cryosphere 8, 1509–1518 (2014).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  72. 72.

    Andersen, K. K. et al. High-resolution record of Northern Hemisphere climate extending into the last interglacial period. Nature 431, 147–151 (2004).

    ADS  CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


This study has been supported by the Villum Foundation and Arctic Research Centre (ARC) at Aarhus University. A.E.C. and C.B. are supported by U.S. National Science Foundation award OPP-1418074. We thank Svend Funder for identifying the shell fragments from Lambert Land.

Author information




N.K.L. conceived the research; N.K.L., L.B.L., A.S., A.A.B., and D.S.S. conducted the fieldwork in 2015 and 2016; L.B.L., A.S., and J.O. performed the laboratory analysis for 10Be and 14C samples; J.O. measured the 10Be and 14C concentrations on AMS; A.E.C. and C.B. calculated the summer temperature and assisted with the ice and climate analysis; all authors contributed to the final interpretation and writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nicolaj K. Larsen.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Larsen, N.K., Levy, L.B., Carlson, A.E. et al. Instability of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream over the last 45,000 years. Nat Commun 9, 1872 (2018).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing