Rapid circulation of warm subtropical waters in a major glacial fjord in East Greenland Academic Article uri icon


  • The recent rapid increase in mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet is primarily attributed to an acceleration of outlet glaciers. One possible cause is increased melting at the ice/ocean interface driven by the synchronous warming of subtropical waters offshore of Greenland. This hypothesis is largely untested, however, because of the lack of observations from Greenland’s glacial fjords and our limited understanding of their dynamics. Here, we present new ship-based and moored oceanographic data, collected in Sermilik Fjord, a large glacial fjord in East Greenland, showing that subtropical waters are present throughout the fjord and are continuously replenished via a wind-driven exchange with the shelf, where they occur year-round. The temperature and rapid renewal of these waters suggest that, at present, they drive enhanced submarine melting at the terminus. Key controls on the melting rate are the volume and properties of subtropical waters on the shelf and the patterns of the along-shore winds, suggesting the glaciers’ acceleration was triggered by a combination of atmospheric and oceanic changes. These measurements provide evidence of rapid advective pathway for the transmission of oceanic variability to the ice-sheet margins and highlight an important process that is missing from prognostic ice-sheet models.

publication date

  • March 2010