Aerial Photographs Reveal Late–20th-Century Dynamic Ice Loss in Northwestern Greenland

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Science  03 Aug 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6094, pp. 569-573
DOI: 10.1126/science.1220614

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A Picture of Disappearing Ice

Global warming is accelerating the loss of ice sheet mass by melting, sublimation, and erosion of their margins. In order to provide a better context for understanding contemporary losses, a longer record of the recent past is needed. Kjær et al. (p. 569) extend the record of thinning along the northwest margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet back to the mid-1980s, by using archived aerial photographs in conjunction with a digital elevation model and comparing their results to more recent data. Northwestern Greenland has experienced two dynamic ice loss events in the past three decades. Local ice loss appears to be caused by a combination of predictable surface processes that operate over decadal time scales and ones that involve the rapid movement of ice over periods of 3 to 5 years that exhibit strong regional differences.


Global warming is predicted to have a profound impact on the Greenland Ice Sheet and its contribution to global sea-level rise. Recent mass loss in the northwest of Greenland has been substantial. Using aerial photographs, we produced digital elevation models and extended the time record of recent observed marginal dynamic thinning back to the mid-1980s. We reveal two independent dynamic ice loss events on the northwestern Greenland Ice Sheet margin: from 1985 to 1993 and 2005 to 2010, which were separated by limited mass changes. Our results suggest that the ice mass changes in this sector were primarily caused by short-lived dynamic ice loss events rather than changes in the surface mass balance. This finding challenges predictions about the future response of the Greenland Ice Sheet to increasing global temperatures.

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