Subglacial Access and Fast Ice Research Experiment (SAFIRE): Resolving the Basal Control on Ice Flow and Calving in Greenland

Lead Research Organisation: Aberystwyth University
Department Name: Inst of Geography and Earth Sciences


Marine-terminating outlet glaciers drain 88% of the Greenland Ice Sheet and are responsible for at least half of the ice sheet's net annual mass loss, which at present is around 200 km3/year. Understanding the processes that drive the fast flow of these glaciers is crucial because a growing body of evidence points to a strong, but spatially varied and often complex, response to both oceanographic and atmospheric forcing. While the bed of glaciers elsewhere is known to strongly influence the flow of ice, no observations have ever been made from beneath a marine-terminating glacier in Greenland; a potential and likely cause of significant error in current predictions of sea level rise. This project will correct this paucity of observational constraint by gaining access to the bed of a major marine-terminating outlet glacier (Store Gletscher) in West Greenland, in order to observe and characterise the basal interface. With instruments deployed at the bed and on the glacier's surface and forefield, the project will fully resolve the basal control on ice flow and the glacier's response to iceberg calving, including the effects of meltwater input to the bed. The observational outcome will inform the glacier's sensitivity to atmospheric as well as oceanographic forcing while also enabling numerical ice flow modelling of unprecedented detail and accuracy.

Planned Impact

This project has fundamental societal and economic benefits related to the ongoing fast pace of glacier change in Greenland. End users will benefit from the proposed research in the following way:

(1) Policymakers and the general public will benefit from a clearer understanding of why marine glaciers in Greenland flow as fast as they do, why they respond sensitively to environmental forcing, and what the impact of this response is in terms of sea level rise.
(2) People in the Uummannaq township will benefit from a clearer understanding of how their local environment is affected by climate change, and why some glaciers in their region have receded rapidly in recent years. The local marine and fishing industry will also benefit from better understanding and predictions of changing ice and water characteristics of the local fjords.
(3) The government of Greenland will benefit from a clearer understanding of glaciological dynamics of the Greenland ice sheet, and how these can affect local communities and infrastructure planning.
(4) The oil and gas industry, particularly companies operating or considering operations in West Greenland, will benefit from knowing the extent and exact cause of recent rapid glacier change in the region, The area faces major offshore exploration activity, which will benefit from improved knowledge and forecasts of iceberg activity. More generally, they will also benefit from the project's assessment of glacier sensitivity and future potential change.
(5) The mineral resource industry will benefit from a clearer understanding of the geology under the Greenland Ice Sheet. They will also have an intense interest in our predictions of the rate at which glaciers are anticipated to recede, and how this rate may change over the coming decades.

To realise the potential impact of the research, the investigators will use websites to make their work visible to the wider stakeholders and general public, making sure the displayed information is frequently updated, interactive and engaging. The proposed research will also be explained on interactive audio-visual displays at the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute, visited by 45,000 or more members of the public and more than 100 school groups every year. Because many schools do not have the funds necessary to visit Cambridge, at least five school groups from inner-city and rural areas located outside of Cambridge will be brought to the Polar Museum free of charge. To promote science as a subject taught in primary and secondary schools, a workshop entitled 'What's happening in Greenland?' will be arranged, with anticipated attendance by 50-60 school teachers.

The Scott Polar Research Institute and Aberystwyth University both have direct links to the private sector. The PI is currently working with the oil and gas industry in order to better understand permafrost changes in the Arctic. Co-Investigators are working with the nuclear waste management industry, to improve understanding of how an ice sheet affects the groundwater flow and water chemistry around a deep geological repository. These connections will be utilized and nourished further in this project.

Finally, one of the investigators on this project (AH) spent three weeks on the Greenland Ice Sheet in 2010, filming the 'Greenland Melt' in episodes 1, 5 & 7 of BBC1's flagship series 'Frozen Planet'. In 2011, two more weeks were spent on the ice sheet filming 'Ice Age' episodes 1, 2 & 3, also for BBC1. In 2012, he is participating in the filming of 'Operation Iceberg' episode 1 for BBC Scotland at Store Gletscher, Uummannaq, the site proposed in this project. BBC has informed the team behind this project that they are planning to film a documentary on Greenland with emphasis on outlet glaciers in 2014, a potential avenue for very high impact of this research, given that filming coincides with the proposed programme of subglacial access drilling and 'on-ice' scientific exploration.


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Description Subglacial water pressure, and therefore basal lubrication, is high and steady 30 km inland of the marine terminus of a major Greenlandic outlet glacier. We now know that the pressure of water trapped between the glacier and its bed - likely formed of soft sediments overlying hard sediment or bedrock - is continuously high and that this allows the glacier's fast fast flow of several hundred metres per year.
Exploitation Route Numerical modellers may include the basal water pressures in models of ice stream response to climate change
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy


Description Research Grant
Amount £122,746 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/P002021/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 03/2019
Description Research Grant
Amount € 824,645 (EUR)
Funding ID ERC-2015-CoG-683043 
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 09/2016 
End 09/2021
Description Hosted 2 day visit by Greenlandic delegation including 18 children and staff from the Uummannaq Children's Home. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact A delegation of 18 children and staff from the Uummannaq Children's Home was invited to Cambridge and the Scott Polar Research Institute during 26-27 September 2017. The delegation made cultural performances seen by more than 800 school children at two state primary schools in Cambridge. The group also performed for around 100 people attending the opening of a new exhibition at the Polar Museum in Cambridge entitled 'Uummannaq: a century of exploration in Greenland'. The visit was arranged and hosted by Dr Poul Christoffersen and was a core part of his 2017 outreach programme. The Uummannaq Children's Home is a sanctuary for early harmed children and young people aged 0 to 18 years, and persons with disabilities related to care failure. A core element of their mission is to help the children gain confidence and self-esteem through music, film-making and cultural (Inuit) performances at home and abroad.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017