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Tracking Greenland Melt in the Ocean Using Noble Gas Fingerprints


Project start
Project end
Type of project
Project theme
Ocean & fiord systems
Project topic

Fieldwork / Study

Fieldwork country
Greenland (DK)
Fieldwork region
Greenland, Mid-East
Fieldwork location

Geolocation is 60.45, -44.8833

Fieldwork start
Fieldwork end

SAR information

Fieldwork / Study

Fieldwork country
Arctic Oceans and various regions
Fieldwork region
North Atlantic
Fieldwork location

Geolocation is 58.7680015564, -59.8930015564

Fieldwork start
Fieldwork end

SAR information

Project details

Science / project plan


Science / project summary
Rapid land-ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet is resulting in increased fresh water discharge into the ocean. One consequence is a rise in global sea level. Another consequence, that has attracted less attention, is the freshening of ocean waters at Greenland's coastal margins. Locally, this impacts sea-ice formation, air-sea exchange, the marine ecosystems and local communities. On larger scales, it can impact dense water formation and hence the global circulation. Beyond bulk estimates based on ice sheet-wide assessments, however, the limited knowledge of where, when and how fresh water enters the ocean makes it difficult to assess its present and future impact. One consequence of this uncertainty is the large discrepancy in the formulation of the fresh water forcing used in model studies to investigate the oceanic impact of Greenland melt. Greenland's fresh water discharge occurs at the head of fjords in the form of icebergs, submarine melt and discharge of surface melt at base of glaciers often hundreds of meters beneath sea level. This discharge drives a non-trivial transformation of the fjords' waters and forms a new water class, glacially modified waters. It is through the export of these glacially modified waters, much of it occurring below the surface, that Greenland's fresh water reaches the large-scale ocean circulation. Traditional measurements do not provide an unambiguous means of tracking glacially modified waters nor can they be used to quantify the relative fraction of surface and submarine melt. Yet knowing how Greenland's fresh water is exported, and differentiating pathways and rates for submarine or surface melt, which may vary at different rates, is key to the ability to assess present and future local and large-scale impacts. By providing the first measurements of how different melt components spread into Greenland's fjords and onto the continental shelves, this project will contribute to ensuring appropriate representation of the relevant dynamics in climate models, which do not resolve ice-ocean exchanges or fjord dynamics. The cross-disciplinary nature of this project will benefit the training of a post-doc. As part of this project, the scientists have interested a media science program (NOVA) in the largely neglected impact of Greenland's increasing fresh water discharge on the ocean. Pending obtaining separate funding, NOVA will be sending a professional producer in the field with the scientists and use material for this project to produce several media pieces on the problem of melting glaciers. In addition, the material from this research will used to raise public awareness on changes occurring in the oceans near Greenland. Land-ice loss at both poles is predicted to increase in a warming climate and will further increase the fresh water discharge into the oceans. Understanding the mechanisms that govern the fate of this fresh water is key to the ability to predict both its local and global impacts. This project utilizes the unique signature of noble gases, and other tracers (tritium, oxygen and helium isotopes), in each type of glacial meltwater to identify and track different kinds of Greenland fresh water in a major glacier-fjord system and on the continental shelves.