Mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet from 1992 to 2018

Abstract

The Greenland Ice Sheet has been a major contributor to global sea-level rise in recent decades1,2, and it is expected to continue to be so3. Although increases in glacier flow4,5,6 and surface melting7,8,9 have been driven by oceanic10,11,12 and atmospheric13,14 warming, the magnitude and trajectory of the ice sheet’s mass imbalance remain uncertain. Here we compare and combine 26 individual satellite measurements of changes in the ice sheet’s volume, flow and gravitational potential to produce a reconciled estimate of its mass balance. The ice sheet was close to a state of balance in the 1990s, but annual losses have risen since then, peaking at 345 ± 66 billion tonnes per year in 2011. In all, Greenland lost 3,902 ± 342 billion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2018, causing the mean sea level to rise by 10.8 ± 0.9 millimetres. Using three regional climate models, we show that the reduced surface mass balance has driven 1,964 ± 565 billion tonnes (50.3 per cent) of the ice loss owing to increased meltwater runoff. The remaining 1,938 ± 541 billion tonnes (49.7 per cent) of ice loss was due to increased glacier dynamical imbalance, which rose from 46 ± 37 billion tonnes per year in the 1990s to 87 ± 25 billion tonnes per year since then. The total rate of ice loss slowed to 222 ± 30 billion tonnes per year between 2013 and 2017, on average, as atmospheric circulation favoured cooler conditions15 and ocean temperatures fell at the terminus of Jakobshavn Isbræ16. Cumulative ice losses from Greenland as a whole have been close to the rates predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their high-end climate warming scenario17, which forecast an additional 70 to 130 millimetres of global sea-level rise by 2100 compared with their central estimate.

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Fig. 1: Greenland Ice Sheet elevation change.
Fig. 2: Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance.
Fig. 3: Cumulative anomalies in the total mass, SMB and ice dynamics of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
Fig. 4: Observed and predicted sea-level contributions from Greenland Ice Sheet mass change.

Data availability

The aggregated Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance data and estimated errors generated in this study are freely available at http://imbie.org and at the NERC Polar Data Centre, https://doi.org/10.5285/8D5FF221-A470-4CC1-B7C4-CBDF383554FC.

Code availability

The code used to compute and aggregate rates of ice sheet mass change and their estimated errors are freely available at https://github.com/IMBIE.

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Acknowledgements

This work is an outcome of the IMBIE supported by the ESA Climate Change Initiative and the NASA Cryosphere Program. A.S. was additionally supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award and the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling.

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Contributions

A.S. and E.I. designed and led the study. E.R., B.S., M.v.d.B., I.V. and P.W. led the IOM, altimetry, SMB, gravimetry and GIA experiments, respectively. G.K., S.N., T.P. and T. Scambos provided additional supervision on glaciology, K.B., A.H., I.J., M.E.E. and T.W. provided additional supervision on satellite observations and N.S. provided additional supervision on GIA. G.M., M.E.P. and T. Slater performed the mass balance data collation and analysis. T. Slater performed the AR5 data analysis. P.W. and I.S. performed the GIA data analysis. M.v.W. and T. Slater performed the SMB data analysis. A.S., E.I., K.B., M.E., N.G., A.H., H.K., M.M., I.O., I.S., T. Slater, M.v.W. and P.W. wrote the manuscript. A.S. led the writing, E.I., K.B., M.E., and T. Slater led the drafting and editing, M.v.W. led the SMB text, P.W. and I.S. led the GIA text and N.G., A.H., H.K., M.M. and I.O. contributed elsewhere. A.S., K.B., H.K., G.M., M.E.P, I.S., S.B.S., T. Slater, P.W. and M.v.W. prepared the figures and tables, with particular focus on Fig. 1 (S.B.S), Fig. 3 (T. Slater), Fig. 4 (T. Slater), Extended Data Fig. 2 (K.B.), Extended Data Fig. 3 (P.W.), Extended Data Fig. 2 (M.v.W.), Extended Data Table 1 (P.W. and I.S.), Extended Data Table 2 (M.v.W.) and Supplementary Table 1 (H.K. and T. Slater). G.M. and M.E.P. led the production of all other figures and tables. All authors participated in the data interpretation and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Andrew Shepherd.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Christina Hulbe, Andreas Kääb and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Ice sheet mass balance datasets.

a, Participant datasets used in this study and their main contributors. b, The number of data available in each calendar year. The interval 2003–2010 includes almost all datasets and is selected as the overlap period. Further details of the satellite observations used in this study are provided in Supplementary Table 1. Refs. 28, 33, 38, 56, 59,60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67,68,69,70,71, 82,83,84,85,86,87,88,89,90.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Greenland Ice Sheet drainage basins.

a, b, Basin used in this study, according to the definitions of ref. 20 (a) and ref. 37 (b).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Modelled glacial isostatic adjustment in Greenland.

a, b, Bedrock uplift rates in Greenland averaged over the GIA model solutions used in this study (a) and their standard deviation (b). Further details of the GIA models used in this study are provided in Extended Data Table 1. High rates of uplift and subsidence associated with the former Laurentide Ice Sheet are apparent to the southwest of Greenland.

Extended Data Fig. 4 SMB of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

af, Time series of SMB in the NW, CW, SW, SE, NE and NO Greenland Ice Sheet drainage basins (Extended Data Fig. 2)108,109. Solid lines are annual averages of the monthly data (dashed lines). Further details of the SMB models used in this study are provided in Extended Data Table 2.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance intracomparison.

ac, Individual rates of Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance used in this study as determined from satellite altimetry (a), gravimetry (b) and the input–output method (c). The grey shading shows the estimated 1σ (dark), 2σ (mid-) and 3σ (light) uncertainty relative to the ensemble average. Refs. 28,33,38,56,59,60,61,62,63,64,65,66,67,68,69,70,71,82,83,84,85,86,87,88,89,90.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance intercomparison.

Rate of Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance as derived from the three techniques: satellite radar and laser altimetry (red), input–output method (blue) and gravimetry (green). Their arithmetic mean is shown in grey. The estimated uncertainty is also shown (shaded envelopes) and is computed as the root mean square of the component time-series errors.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Cumulative Greenland Ice Sheet SMB.

The cumulative surface mass change determined from an average (mean) of the RACMO2.3p246, MARv3.621 and HIRHAM9 regional climate models relative to their 1980–1990 means (see Methods). The estimated uncertainty of the mean change is also shown (shaded area), computed as the average of the uncertainties from each of the three models. RACMO2.3p2 uncertainties are based on a comparison to in situ observations33. MARv3.6 uncertainties are evaluated from the variability due to forcing from climate reanalyses21. HIRHAM uncertainties are estimated on the basis of comparisons to in situ accumulation and ablation data110. Cumulative uncertainties are computed as the root sum square of annual errors, on the assumption that these errors are not correlated over time17.

Extended Data Table 1 Details of GIA models used in this study
Extended Data Table 2 Details of the SMB models used in this study
Extended Data Table 3 Rate of Greenland Ice Sheet mass change for 2005–2015

Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1 | Details of satellite datasets used in this study.

This file contains: 1.1 Data sets and methods employed by participants of the gravimetry experiment group; 1.2 Data sets and methods employed by participants of the radar and laser altimetry experiment group; 1.3 Data sets and methods employed by participants of the mass budget experiment group; and Supplementary References.

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Shepherd, A., Ivins, E., Rignot, E. et al. Mass balance of the Greenland Ice Sheet from 1992 to 2018. Nature 579, 233–239 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1855-2

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