Article | Published:

Interruption of two decades of Jakobshavn Isbrae acceleration and thinning as regional ocean cools


Jakobshavn Isbrae has been the single largest source of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet over the last 20 years. During that time, it has been retreating, accelerating and thinning. Here we use airborne altimetry and satellite imagery to show that since 2016 Jakobshavn has been re-advancing, slowing and thickening. We link these changes to concurrent cooling of ocean waters in Disko Bay that spill over into Ilulissat Icefjord. Ocean temperatures in the bay’s upper 250 m have cooled to levels not seen since the mid 1980s. Observations and modelling trace the origins of this cooling to anomalous wintertime heat loss in the boundary current that circulates around the southern half of Greenland. Longer time series of ocean temperature, subglacial discharge and glacier variability strongly suggest that ocean-induced melting at the front has continued to influence glacier dynamics after the disintegration of its floating tongue in 2003. We conclude that projections of Jakobshavn’s future contribution to sea-level rise that are based on glacier geometry are insufficient, and that accounting for external forcing is indispensable.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Data availability

Data are available in the following public repositories, or upon request from the indicated authors. The GLISTIN ice data and the airborne expendable CTD oceanographic data are available at the OMG website: The Operation IceBridge ATM data are available from the NSIDC website at The flow speed data used in this study are available from A.G. ( upon request. The Landsat 4, 5, 7 and 8 data, used in inferring glacier flow speeds and front locations, are available at The Sentinel-2a/b data used in inferring flow speeds are available at The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea oceanographic data are available at and The ECCO Version 4 Release 3 and Version 5 Release alpha ocean and sea-ice products are available at and The RACMO2.3p2 data are available from B.P.Y.N. ( and M.R.v.d.B. ( upon request. Bed topography and fjord bathymetry BedMachine Version v3 data are available at

Additional information

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

Change history

  • 20 May 2019

    An amendment to this paper has been published and can be accessed via a link at the top of the paper.


  1. 1.

    Joughin, I., Smith, B. E., Shean, D. E. & Floricioiu, D. Brief communication: further summer speedup of Jakobshavn Isbræ. Cryosphere 8, 209–214 (2014).

  2. 2.

    Bindschadler, R. Surface Topography of the Greenland Ice Sheet from Satellite Radar Altimetry (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Management, Scientific and Technical Information Division, 1989).

  3. 3.

    Howat, I., Joughin, I. & Scambos, T. Rapid changes in ice discharge from Greenland outlet glaciers. Science 315, 1559–1561 (2007).

  4. 4.

    Joughin, I. et al. Continued evolution of Jakobshavn Isbrae following its rapid speedup. J. Geophys. Res. 113, F04006 (2008).

  5. 5.

    Joughin, I. et al. Seasonal to decadal scale variations in the surface velocity of Jakobshavn Isbrae, Greenland: observation and model-based analysis. J. Geophys. Res. 117, F02030 (2012).

  6. 6.

    Moon, T., Joughin, I., Smith, B. & Howat, I. 21st-century evolution of Greenland outlet glacier velocities. Science 336, 576–578 (2012).

  7. 7.

    Enderlin, E. et al. An improved mass budget for the Greenland ice sheet. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 866–872 (2014).

  8. 8.

    Holland, D., Thomas, R., de Young, B., Ribergaard, M. & Lyberth, B. Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters. Nat. Geosci. 1, 659–664 (2008).

  9. 9.

    Motyka, R. et al. Submarine melting of the 1985 Jakobshavn Isbrae floating tongue and the triggering of the current retreat. J. Geophys. Res. 116, F01007 (2011).

  10. 10.

    Thomas, R. et al. Investigation of surface melting and dynamic thinning on Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. J. Glaciol. 49, 231–239 (2003).

  11. 11.

    Truffer, M. & Motyka, R. Where glaciers meet water: subaqueous melt and its relevance to glaciers in various settings. Rev. Geophys. 54, 220–239 (2016).

  12. 12.

    Joughin, I., Abdalati, W. & Fahnestock, M. Large fluctuations in speed on Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbræ glacier. Nature 432, 608–610 (2004).

  13. 13.

    Thomas, R. Force-perturbation analysis of recent thinning and acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. J. Glaciol. 50, 57–66 (2004).

  14. 14.

    Howat, I. et al. Mass balance of Greenland’s three largest outlet glaciers, 2000–2010. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L12501 (2011).

  15. 15.

    McMillan, M. et al. A high-resolution record of Greenland mass balance. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 7002–7010 (2016).

  16. 16.

    Nick, F., Vieli, A., Howat, I. & Joughin, I. Large-scale changes in Greenland outlet glacier dynamics triggered at the terminus. Nat. Geosci. 2, 110–114 (2009).

  17. 17.

    Felikson, D. et al. Inland thinning on the Greenland ice sheet controlled by outlet glacier geometry. Nat. Geosci. 10, 366–369 (2017).

  18. 18.

    McFadden, E., Howat, I., Joughin, I., Smith, B. & Ahn, Y. Changes in the dynamics of marine terminating outlet glaciers in west Greenland (2000–2009). J. Geophys. Res. 116, F02022 (2011).

  19. 19.

    Bondzio, J. et al. The mechanisms behind Jakobshavn Isbrae’s acceleration and mass loss: a 3-D thermomechanical model study. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 6252–6260 (2017).

  20. 20.

    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).

  21. 21.

    Schoof, C. Ice sheet grounding line dynamics: steady states, stability, and hysteresis. J. Geophys. Res. 112, F03S28 (2007).

  22. 22.

    Gudmundsson, G. Ice-shelf buttressing and the stability of marine ice sheets. Cryosphere 7, 647–655 (2013).

  23. 23.

    Fenty, I. et al. Oceans melting Greenland: early results from NASA’s ocean–ice mission in Greenland. Oceanography 29, 72–83 (2016).

  24. 24.

    Studinger, M. IceBridge ATM L2 Icessn Elevation, Slope, and Roughness Version 2 (NASA National Snow and Ice Data Center Distributed Active Archive Center, 2014, updated 2017);

  25. 25.

    Holland, C., Rosing-Asvid, D., Behrens, A. & Boje, J. Oceanic boundary conditions for Jakobshavn Glacier. Part I: variability and renewal of Ilulissat Icefjord waters, 2001-14. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 45, 3–32 (2015).

  26. 26.

    Gladish, C., Holland, D. & Lee, C. Oceanic boundary conditions for Jakobshavn Glacier. Part II: provenance and sources of variability of Disko Bay and Ilulissat Icefjord waters, 1990–2011. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 45, 33–63 (2015).

  27. 27.

    Straneo, F. & Heimbach, P. North Atlantic warming and the retreat of Greenland’s outlet glaciers. Nature 504, 36–43 (2013).

  28. 28.

    Straneo, F. et al. Characteristics of ocean waters reaching Greenland’s glaciers. Ann. Glaciol. 53, 202–210 (2012).

  29. 29.

    Jenkins, A. Convection-driven melting near the grounding lines of ice shelves and tidewater glaciers. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 41, 2279–2294 (2011).

  30. 30.

    Xu, Y., Rignot, E., Menemenlis, D. & Koppes, M. Numerical experiments on subaqueous melting of Greenland tidewater glaciers in response to ocean warming and enhanced subglacial discharge. Ann. Glaciol. 53, 229–234 (2012).

  31. 31.

    Carroll, D. et al. The impact of glacier geometry on meltwater plume structure and submarine melt in Greenland fjords. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 9739–9748 (2016).

  32. 32.

    Straneo, F. et al. Challenges to understand the dynamic response of Greenland’s marine terminating glaciers to oceanic and atmospheric forcing. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 94, 1131–1144 (2013).

  33. 33.

    Slater, D., Goldberg, D., Nienow, P. & Cowton, T. Scalings for submarine melting at tidewater glaciers from buoyant plume theory. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 46, 1839–1855 (2016).

  34. 34.

    Amundson, J. et al. Ice mélange dynamics and implications for terminus stability, Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. J. Geophys. Res. 115, F01005 (2010).

  35. 35.

    Cassotto, R., Fahnestock, M., Amundson, J., Truffer, M. & Joughin, I. Seasonal and interannual variations in ice melange and its impact on terminus stability, Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. J. Glaciol. 61, 76–88 (2015).

  36. 36.

    Robel, A. Thinning sea ice weakens buttressing force of iceberg mélange and promotes calving. Nat. Commun. 8, 14596 (2017).

  37. 37.

    Van Der Veen, C., Plummer, J. & Stearns, L. Controls on the recent speed-up of Jakobshavn Isbræ, West Greenland. J. Glaciol. 57, 770–782 (2011).

  38. 38.

    Cavanagh, J., Lampkin, D. & Moon, T. Seasonal variability in regional ice flow due to meltwater injection into the shear margins of Jakobshavn Isbrae. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surface 122, 2488–2505 (2017).

  39. 39.

    Lloyd, J. et al. A 100 yr record of ocean temperature control on the stability of Jakobshavn Isbrae, West Greenland. Geology 39, 867–870 (2011).

  40. 40.

    Vieli, A. & Nick, F. Understanding and modelling rapid dynamic changes of tidewater outlet glaciers: issues and implications. Surv. Geophys. 32, 437–458 (2011).

  41. 41.

    Csatho, B., Schenk, T., Van Der Veen, C. & Krabill, W. Intermittent thinning of Jakobshavn Isbræ, West Greenland, since the Little Ice Age. J. Glaciol. 54, 131–144 (2008).

  42. 42.

    Thomas, R. et al. Accelerating ice loss from the fastest Greenland and Antarctic glaciers. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L10502 (2011).

  43. 43.

    Walker, C. & Gardner, A. Rapid drawdown of Antarctica’s Wordie Ice Shelf glaciers in response to ENSO/Southern Annular Mode-driven warming in the Southern Ocean. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 476, 100–110 (2017).

  44. 44.

    Khazendar, A. et al. Rapid submarine ice melting in the grounding zones of ice shelves in West Antarctica. Nat. Commun. 7, 13243 (2016).

  45. 45.

    Rignot, E., Box, J., Burgess, E. & Hanna, E. Mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet from 1958 to 2007. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L20502 (2008).

  46. 46.

    Seroussi, H. et al. Continued retreat of Thwaites Glacier, West Antarctica, controlled by bed topography and ocean circulation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 6191–6199 (2017).

  47. 47.

    Krabill, W. et al. Aircraft laser altimetry measurement of elevation changes of the Greenland ice sheet: technique and accuracy assessment. J. Geodyn. 34, 357–376 (2002).

  48. 48.

    Khazendar, A., Borstad, C., Scheuchl, B., Rignot, E. & Seroussi, H. The evolving instability of the remnant Larsen B Ice Shelf and its tributary glaciers. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 419, 199–210 (2015).

  49. 49.

    Brunt, K. et al. Assessment of NASA airborne laser altimetry data using ground-based GPS data near Summit Station, Greenland. Cryosphere 11, 681–692 (2017).

  50. 50.

    Moller, D. et al. The glacier and land ice surface topography interferometer: an airborne proof-of-concept demonstration of high-precision Ka-band single-pass elevation mapping. IEEE Trans. Geosci. Remote Sens. 49, 827–842 (2011).

  51. 51.

    Hensley, S., Moller, D., Oveisgharan, S., Michel, T. & Wu, X. Ka-band mapping and measurements of interferometric penetration of the Greenland ice sheets by the GLISTIN radar. IEEE J. Sel. Topics Appl. Earth Observ. Remote Sens. 9, 2436–2450 (2016).

  52. 52.

    Gardner, A. et al. Increased West Antarctic and unchanged East Antarctic ice discharge over the last 7 years. Cryosphere 12, 521–547 (2018).

  53. 53.

    Joughin, I., Smith, B., Howat, I., Scambos, T. & Moon, T. Greenland flow variability from ice-sheet-wide velocity mapping. J. Glaciol. 56, 415–430 (2010).

  54. 54.

    Morlighem, M. et al. BedMachine v3: Complete bed topography and ocean bathymetry mapping of Greenland from multibeam echo sounding combined with mass conservation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 44, 11051–11061 (2017).

  55. 55.

    Boyer, T. P. et al. World Ocean Database 2013 (SilverSpring, accessed July 2018).

  56. 56.

    OMG (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, 2018);

  57. 57.

    Fukumori, I. et al. ECCO Version 4 Release 3 (ECCO Consortium, 2017);

  58. 58.

    Forget, G. et al. ECCO version 4: an integrated framework for non-linear inverse modeling and global ocean state estimation. Geosci. Model Dev. 8, 3071–3104 (2015).

  59. 59.

    Zhang H., Menemenlis, D. & Fenty, I. ECCO LLC270 Ocean-Ice State Estimate (ECCO Consortium, 2018);

  60. 60.

    Roemmich, D. & Gilson, J. The 2004–2008 mean and annual cycle of temperature, salinity, and steric height in the global ocean from the Argo Program. Progr. Oceanogr. 82, 81–100 (2009).

  61. 61.

    Curry, B., Lee, C., Petrie, B., Moritz, R. & Kwok, R. Multiyear volume, liquid freshwater, and sea ice transports through Davis Strait, 2004–10. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 44, 1244–1266 (2014).

  62. 62.

    Carroll, D. et al. Subglacial discharge-driven renewal of tidewater glacier fjords. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans 122, 6611–6629 (2017).

  63. 63.

    Noël, B. et al. Modelling the climate and surface mass balance of polar ice sheets using RACMO2—Part 1: Greenland (1958–2016). Cryosphere 12, 811–831 (2018).

  64. 64.

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

  65. 65.

    Ligtenberg, S., Kuipers Munneke, P., Noël, B. & van den Broeke, M. Brief communication: Improved simulation of the present-day Greenland firn layer (1960–2016). Cryosphere 12, 1643–1649 (2018).

Download references


The authors acknowledge support from the following sources. A.K.: NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Program; and the Oceans Melting Greenland mission. I.G.F., I.F., O.W. and H.Z.: NASA’s Physical Oceanography; Cryospheric Sciences; and Modeling, Analysis and Prediction programmes. C.M.L.: NSF grant ARC-1022472 and NASA’s Physical Oceanography programme. H.S.: NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences; and Modeling, Analysis and Prediction programmes; and JPL’s Research and Technology Development programme. M.R.v.d.B. and B.P.Y.N.: the Netherlands Earth System Science Centre. The authors thank JPL’s UAVSAR group for ongoing support for the processing and use of the GLISTIN-A data. The authors thank J. Gobat, A. Huxtable, B. Jokinen and E. Boget (APL-UW) and the captains and crews of R/V Knorr and R/V Atlantis for their efforts in supporting the Davis Strait array. The authors thank the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, Nuuk Greenland, for collection of hydrographic data in Disko Bay prior to 2015 as part of its Standard Hydrographic Coastal Monitoring Program. This work was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Author information

A.K. conceived the study, analysed parts of the data, especially glacier altimetry, prepared some of the figures and wrote most of the paper. I.G.F. analysed parts of the data, especially the oceanography and ECCO ocean state estimates, prepared some of the figures and wrote parts of the paper. D.C. conducted the plume modelling and assisted with some of the figures. A.G. analysed the velocity data and provided the Landsat imagery for front detection. C.M.L. provided Davis Strait mooring data. I.F., O.W. and H.Z. assisted with the production of ECCO ocean state estimates. H.S. advised on glacier dynamics and ice–ocean interactions. D.M. assisted with GLISTIN data calibration and validation. B.P.Y.N. and M.R.v.d.B. contributed the RACMO2.3p2 subglacial discharge data. S.D. coordinated planning and data collection for OMG. J.W. assisted with analysing parts of the oceanography data, assisted with the writing and prepared some of the figures.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Ala Khazendar.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures and Tables

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Further reading

Fig. 1: The study area and recent thickening observations.
Fig. 2: Surface elevation changes and bed depths along the main trunk of Jakobshavn.
Fig. 3: Ocean forcing and glacier response.