Airborne geophysical investigations of basal conditions at flow transitions of outlet glaciers on the Greenland Ice Sheet

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Geographical Sciences


The 1.7 million km2 Greenland Ice Sheet is divided into a series of major drainage basins, each typically about 50-100,000 km2 in area. Most of these basins drain into the marine waters of fjord systems via relatively narrow and heavily crevassed outlet glaciers that dissect the mountains fringing the island. Over the past few years it has become clear that the Ice Sheet is losing mass and has become a significant contributor to global sea-level rise. This is related to, first, the doubling in speed of several outlet glaciers, increasing ice flux to the sea and, secondly, a major increase in the area affected by summer melting and runoff from the ice-sheet surface. Both of these changes have taken place in the past decade and have been linked with warmer air and water temperatures over and around Greenland. A major question for both scientists and policymakers is how the Greenland Ice Sheet will continue to react to the temperature rises that are predicted for the coming century by a suite of climate models, particularly in the context that the Arctic is likely to warm at a greater rate than the global average due to the continuing loss of its surrounding sea-ice cover and the changes in ocean albedo and, therefore, energy balance that will result. We will acquire geophysical data from a series of ten outlet glaciers of the Greenland Ice Sheet using airborne ice-penetrating radar, laser altimeter, gravimeter, and magnetometer and GPS instruments. These glacier systems have been selected because: (a) they are major drainage basins within the ice sheet which provide a high ice flux to the sea; and (b) they represent different sub-environments within the Greenland Ice Sheet and its related climate and ocean setting. We will focus our investigations on three key areas of each outlet glacier: first, the heavily crevassed fast-flowing outlet glaciers themselves, that flow in narrow channels through Greenland's fringing mountains; secondly, an upper transition zone between the ice-sheet interior and these narrow outlet glaciers; and thirdly, the grounding zone marking the transition of fast-flowing outlet glaciers to floating ice tongues that are present at the head of many Greenland fjords. Our scientific objectives are: 1. To determine ice surface elevation and subglacial bed elevation, including measurement beneath areas of heavy crevassing in fast-flowing outlet glaciers. 2. To characterize the substrate beneath the ice, in particular whether it is crystalline bedrock or deformable sediments. 3. To establish the distribution of subglacial melting and characterize the subglacial hydrological system where water is present. 4. To identify the transition zones between inland ice, outlet glaciers and the grounding zone and reveal basal character changes associated with them. 5. To describe the three-dimensional nature of internal ice layering within transition zone from inland ice to outlet glacier to measure the distribution of accumulation, strain, and basal melting. This information will make a fundamental contribution to the computer modelling of ice sheets, and how Greenland in particular may respond in future to changes in air and ocean temperate over the coming decades. This because these models require information, known as boundary conditions, on the shape of the bed and also the processes that are going on there in order to make useful predictions. To date, we know little about, for example, the distribution of water beneath these outlet glaciers. The changing amount of ice lost from the ice sheet by surface melting and iceberg production is important, in turn, for predictions on the future contributions of Greenland to sea-level rise in a warming Arctic. This is of significance beyond the academic community. In the UK and elsewhere, governments at national and regional level are requiring information about rates of sea-level rise and the remediation measures, such as sea defences, that are needed.


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Bamber J (2013) A new bed elevation dataset for Greenland in The Cryosphere

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Bamber JL (2013) Paleofluvial mega-canyon beneath the central Greenland ice sheet. in Science (New York, N.Y.)

Description We discovered the longest canyon in the world, extending from the northern margin of Greenland to the deep interior with a length of at least 750 km. We associated this canyon with a pre glacial fluvial origin. The canyon now has it's own wiki page
Exploitation Route The paper describing the new bedrock data set for Greenland has been viewed/downloaded more than 11,000 times to date
Sectors Energy,Environment

Description NERC standard grant award
Amount £479,642 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/M000869/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 10/2017