Arctic & Antarctica
To measure water depth and salinity, the OMG project dropped probes by plane into fjords along Greenland’s coast. Shown here is one such fjord in which a glacier is undercut by warming water. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Arctic - NASA’s OMG: Warming Seas Are Accelerating Greenland’s Glacier Retreat

Scientists with NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland mission are probing deep below the island’s warming coastal waters to help us better predict the rising seas of the future.

Greenland’s melting glaciers, which plunge into Arctic waters via steep-sided inlets, or fjords, are among the main contributors to global sea level rise in response to climate change. Gaining a better understanding of how warming ocean water affects these glaciers will help improve predictions of their fate. Such predictions could in turn be used by communities around the world to better prepare for flooding and mitigate coastal ecosystem damage.

But researchers have long lacked measurements of the depths of the fjords along Greenland’s craggy coast. Without this information, it’s extremely difficult to arrive at a precise assessment of how much ocean water is being allowed into the fjords and how that affects glacier melt. By measuring their fjords one by one, a new study published in Science Advances has quantified, for the first time, how the warming coastal waters are impacting Greenland’s glaciers.

OMG Mission
The OMG mission also carried out depth and salinity measurements of Greenland’s fjords occupied by marine-terminating glaciers by boat. These measurements complement those provided by probes dropped from aircraft to create the most comprehensive survey to date of Greenland’s melting glaciers. Credit: NASA

For the past five years, scientists with the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission have been studying these marine-terminating glaciers from the air and by ship. They found that of the 226 glaciers surveyed, 74 in deep fjords accounted for nearly half of the total ice loss (as previously monitored by satellites) from Greenland between 1992 and 2017. These glaciers exhibited the most undercutting, which is when a layer of warm, salty water at the bottom of a fjord melts the base of a glacier, causing the ice above to break apart. In contrast, the 51 glaciers that extend into shallow fjords or onto shallow ridges experienced the least undercutting and contributed only 15% of the total ice loss.

“I was surprised by how lopsided these findings were. The biggest and deepest glaciers are undercut much faster than the smaller glaciers in shallow water,” said lead author Michael Wood, a post-doctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, who began this research as a doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine. “In other words, the biggest glaciers are the most sensitive to the warming waters, and those are the ones really driving Greenland’s ice loss.”

In the case of Greenland’s glaciers, the bigger they are, the faster they melt. And the culprit is the depth of the fjord they occupy: Deeper fjords allow in more warm ocean water than shallow fjords, hastening the undercutting process.

Undercutting and Calving

Greenland is home to one of Earth’s only two ice sheets.The ice there is over 2 miles (3 kilometers) thick in places. At the edges of Greenland, the vast glaciers extending from the ice sheet travel slowly down valleys like icy conveyor belts, which pour into the fjords and then melt or break off (or calve) as icebergs. The ice is replenished by snowfall that is compressed over time into the ice pack.

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