The recent retreat and speedup of outlet glaciers, as well as enhanced surface melting around the ice sheet margin, have increased Greenland's contribution to sea level rise to 0.6 ± 0.1 mm yr?1 and its discharge of freshwater into the North Atlantic. The widespread, near-synchronous glacier retreat, and its coincidence with a period of oceanic and atmospheric warming, suggests a common climate driver. Evidence points to the marine margins of these glaciers as the region from which changes propagated inland. Yet, the forcings and mechanisms behind these dynamic responses are poorly understood and are either missing or crudely parameterized in climate and ice sheet models. Resulting projected sea level rise contributions from Greenland by 2100 remain highly uncertain.
This paper summarizes the current state of knowledge and highlights key physical aspects of Greenland's coupled ice sheet–ocean–atmosphere system. Three research thrusts are identified to yield fundamental insights into ice sheet, ocean, sea ice, and atmosphere interactions, their role in Earth's climate system, and probable trajectories of future changes: 1) focused process studies addressing critical glacier, ocean, atmosphere, and coupled dynamics; 2) sustained observations at key sites; and 3) inclusion of relevant dynamics in Earth system models.
Understanding the dynamic response of Greenland's glaciers to climate forcing constitutes both a scientific and technological frontier, given the challenges of obtaining the appropriate measurements from the glaciers' marine termini and the complexity of the dynamics involved, including the coupling of the ocean, atmosphere, glacier, and sea ice systems. Interdisciplinary and international cooperation are crucial to making progress on this novel and complex problem.