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The causes of recent dynamic thinning of Greenland's outlet glaciers have been debated. Realistic simulations suggest that changes at the marine fronts of these glaciers are to blame, implying that dynamic thinning will cease once the glaciers retreat to higher ground. For the last decade, many outlet glaciers in Greenland that terminate in the ocean have accelerated, thinned, and retreated. To explain these dynamic changes, two hypotheses have been discussed. Atmospheric warming has increased surface melting and may also have increased the amount of meltwater reaching the glacier bed, increasing lubrication at the base and hence the rate of glacier ... continued below

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Price, Stephen January 1, 2009.

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The causes of recent dynamic thinning of Greenland's outlet glaciers have been debated. Realistic simulations suggest that changes at the marine fronts of these glaciers are to blame, implying that dynamic thinning will cease once the glaciers retreat to higher ground. For the last decade, many outlet glaciers in Greenland that terminate in the ocean have accelerated, thinned, and retreated. To explain these dynamic changes, two hypotheses have been discussed. Atmospheric warming has increased surface melting and may also have increased the amount of meltwater reaching the glacier bed, increasing lubrication at the base and hence the rate of glacier sliding. Alternatively, a change in the delicate balance of forces where the glacier fronts meet the ocean could trigger the changes. Faezeh Nick and colleagues5 present ice-sheet modeling experiments that mimic the observations on Helheim glacier, East Greenland, and suggest that the dynamic behaviour of outlet glaciers follows from perturbations at their marine fronts. Greenland's ice sheet loses mass partly through surface melting and partly through fast flowing outlet glaciers that connect the vast plateau of inland ice with the ocean. Earlier ice sheet models have failed to reproduce the dynamic variability exhibited by ice sheets over time. It has therefore not been possible to distinguish with confidence between basal lubrication from surface meltwater and changes at the glaciers' marine fronts as causes for the observed changes on Greenland's outlet glaciers. But this distinction bears directly on future sea-level rise, the raison d'etre of much of modern-day glaciology: If the recent dynamic mass loss Greenland's outlet glaciers is linked to changing atmospheric temperatures, it may continue for as long as temperatures continue to increase. On the other hand, if the source of the dynamic mass loss is a perturbation at the ice-ocean boundary, these glaciers will lose contact with that perturbation after a finite amount of thinning and retreat. Therefore, the first hypothesis implies continued retreat of outlet glaciers into the foreseeable future, while the second does not -- provided the bedrock topography prohibits a connection between the retreating glacier and the ocean. Nick and coauthors test the physical mechanisms implied in each hypotbesis in an innovative ice-flow model, and use that model to try to match a time series of observations from Helheim glacier, one of Greenland's three largest outlet glaciers. Along with many observations, the simulations strongly support the contention that the recent retreat of Greenland's outlet glaciers is the result of changes at their marine fronts.Further, the simulations confirm the earlier hypotheses that bedrock topography largely controlled Helheim glacier's rapid acceleration and retreat in 2004 and 2005, and its deceleration and stabilization in 2006. Finally, the current work implies that if requirements of observational data (high-resolution bed topography) and computational resources (fine computational grid resolution) can be met, improved predictive capability for ice-sheet models is attainable. With respect to the concerns raised by the IPCC, this study signals progress.

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  • Journal Name: Nature Geoscience

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  • Report No.: LA-UR-09-00247
  • Report No.: LA-UR-09-247
  • Grant Number: AC52-06NA25396
  • DOI: 10.1038/ngeo424 | External Link
  • Office of Scientific & Technical Information Report Number: 956509
  • Archival Resource Key: ark:/67531/metadc934283

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  • January 1, 2009

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  • Nov. 13, 2016, 7:26 p.m.

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  • Dec. 9, 2016, 11:31 p.m.

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Price, Stephen. From the front, article, January 1, 2009; [New Mexico]. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc934283/: accessed October 16, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.