Rate of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet will exceed Holocene values this century


The Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) is losing mass at a high rate1. Given the short-term nature of the observational record, it is difficult to assess the historical importance of this mass-loss trend. Unlike records of greenhouse gas concentrations and global temperature, in which observations have been merged with palaeoclimate datasets, there are no comparably long records for rates of GIS mass change. Here we reveal unprecedented mass loss from the GIS this century, by placing contemporary and future rates of GIS mass loss within the context of the natural variability over the past 12,000 years. We force a high-resolution ice-sheet model with an ensemble of climate histories constrained by ice-core data2. Our simulation domain covers southwestern Greenland, the mass change of which is dominated by surface mass balance. The results agree favourably with an independent chronology of the history of the GIS margin3,4. The largest pre-industrial rates of mass loss (up to 6,000 billion tonnes per century) occurred in the early Holocene, and were similar to the contemporary (ad 2000–2018) rate of around 6,100 billion tonnes per century5. Simulations of future mass loss from southwestern GIS, based on Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) scenarios corresponding to low (RCP2.6) and high (RCP8.5) greenhouse gas concentration trajectories6, predict mass loss of between 8,800 and 35,900 billion tonnes over the twenty-first century. These rates of GIS mass loss exceed the maximum rates over the past 12,000 years. Because rates of mass loss from the southwestern GIS scale linearly5 with the GIS as a whole, our results indicate, with high confidence, that the rate of mass loss from the GIS will exceed Holocene rates this century.

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Fig. 1: Domain for the ice-sheet model and moraine record of past GIS change in SW Greenland.
Fig. 2: Increased and variable GIS mass loss during the Holocene.
Fig. 3: Exceptional rates of ice-mass loss in the twenty-first century, relative to the Holocene.
Fig. 4: Substantial change in surface elevation of the GIS over the twenty-first century.

Data availability

Original data published here are ice-sheet model output (Gt per century and Gt per year) and modified palaeoclimate data from ref. 2, which are available at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/study/30172. The simulations we performed made use of the open-source ISSM and are available at https://issm.jpl.nasa.gov/ (last access 1 July 2019)21.


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We acknowledge field logistical support by CH2MHill Polar Field Services. We acknowledge support by NSF-Arctic System Sciences grants ARC-1504267 to J.P.B., B.C. and E.K.T., ARC-1503281 to E.J.S. and G.J.H., ARC-1504230 to M.M., ARC-1503959 to N.E.Y. and J.M.S., and ARC-1504457 to J.V.J.; and NSF-Earth Sciences Instrumentation and Facilities grant 1652274 to E.K.T. J.A.B. acknowledges NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-1256082); A.A.C. acknowledges NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-1645677). A.d.V. and E.A. acknowledge support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Fonds de Recherche du Québec - Nature et Technologie (FRQNT). S.N. acknowledge support from the NASA Sea Level Change Team and Cryosphere Sciences Programs. J.M.S. acknowledges support by the Unger Vetlesen Foundation and the Columbia Climate Center. This is LDEO contribution number 8436.

Author information




The project was conceived by J.P.B., N.E.Y., J.M.S., E.K.T., B.C., E.J.S., G.J.H., M.M., E.L. and J.V.J. J.P.B., J.K.C., J.A.B. and E.J.S. wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All authors commented on and edited the manuscript. N.E.Y., E.K.T. and J.P.B. led the fieldwork, with contributions from O.B., A.A.C., A.J.L., J.K.C. and J.A.B. J.K.C. led ice-sheet modelling with N.-J.S., E.L., M.M., J.V.J. and J.D. J.A.B. led climate forcing with E.J.S. and G.J.H. A.J.L., J.K.C. and J.P.B. carried out the data–model comparison. A.d.V. and E.A. provided information on sea-surface conditions. S.N. led ISMIP6 climate forcing used in this study.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jason P. Briner.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Andy Aschwanden 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 Precipitation forcing for the Holocene ice-sheet simulation.

The area-averaged (over model domain) mean annual precipitation is shown for three different reconstructions2.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Temperature forcing for the Holocene ice-sheet simulation.

The area-averaged (over model domain) mean annual temperature is shown for three different reconstructions2.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Basal-friction sensitivity experiment.

The map shows the difference in the friction coefficient between the model using a friction coefficient proportional to the bedrock topography and a model using a friction coefficient derived by extrapolation. Red shows where the friction coefficient proportional to the bedrock topography is higher than the friction coefficient derived from extrapolation.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Sensitivity experiment showing the influence of basal friction on simulated GIS mass change.

The simulated ice-mass change (Gt per century) in the Holocene is shown using climatologies from model run 1 (Extended Data Table 1), with reference friction coefficients outside the present-day ice margin derived as a function of the bed topography (red) or as an extrapolation of friction coefficients (blue).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Climatology sensitivity experiment.

The simulated ice-mass change (Gt per century) in the Holocene is shown using two different reference climatologies (monthly mean) of temperature and precipitation from ref. 35, to which the temperature and precipitation anomalies from ref. 2 are applied. Blue, simulated ice-mass change using the ad 1850–2000-mean reference climatology (the same reference period as in ref. 2); red, simulated ice-mass change using the ad 1850–1950-mean reference climatology. The climate anomalies2 applied to the reference climatologies are the same as for model run 7 (Extended Data Table 1).

Extended Data Fig. 6 Data–model comparison of ice-margin change.

a, Maps showing the simulated (blue) and observed (black; from geologic reconstruction) ice margin for model simulation 7. b, Maps showing the simulated (green) and observed (black; from geologic reconstruction) ice margin for model simulation 1. See Extended Data Table 1 for a description of the model simulations. ka, thousand years ago.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Goodness-of-fit exercise in the area with detailed moraine records.

ag, Comparison of modelled and reconstructed ice margins in the northern domain (a) at six different time slices (bg). Field-reconstructed ice margins3 are represented by the black lines. Simulated ice margins not shown in b are at the domain boundary or coastline; some margins in d lie beneath other margins, making them invisible; dashed lines demarcate the comparison domain.

Extended Data Table 1 Holocene ice-sheet model simulations and the corresponding temperature and precipitation combinations
Extended Data Table 2 Data–model fit in the northern domain

Supplementary information

Video 1

Simulated surface elevation change (m/century) using run 9 with RCP 2.6 MIROC forcing.

Video 2

Simulated surface elevation change (m/century) using run 9 with RCP 8.5 MIROC forcing.

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Briner, J.P., Cuzzone, J.K., Badgeley, J.A. et al. Rate of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet will exceed Holocene values this century. Nature 586, 70–74 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2742-6

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