Are Ocean Currents Hastening the Retreat of Greenland’s Glaciers?

Meltwater in Greenland

Credit: Peter West / National Science Foundation

6/10/2010

Since the early 1990s, glaciers in Greenland have been shrinking at an unprecedented and ever-faster pace. The well-studied mountain glaciers of Europe typically move about 50 meters a year; some of the glaciers in southeast Greenland are now moving at a rate of 38 meters (124 feet) a day.

Greenland’s glaciers are not simply melting, cautions Fiamma Straneo, a physical oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). It would be more accurate to say they’re falling apart.

WHOI's Ocean and Climate Change Institute, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration supported the research.

More and more, the drip-drip-drip of rapid thawing has been accompanied by the thunderous crash of massive ice chunks cracking off the glaciers’ front edges and plunging into the ocean.

“This is a very important distinction,” said Straneo. “It’s not as simple as ‘We’ve increased the air temperature above Greenland, and it’s driving more melting.’ The glaciers are moving a lot faster, they’re thinning, they’re breaking up, and they’re retreating. They’re dumping more ice into the ocean.

“The glaciers are changing how they work.”

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