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Synchronous retreat and acceleration of southeast Greenland outlet glaciers 2000–06: ice dynamics and coupling to climate

  • Ian M. Howat (a1) (a2) (a3), Ian Joughin (a1), Mark Fahnestock (a4), Benjamin E. Smith (a1) and Ted A. Scambos (a3)...

A large portion of the recent increase in the rate of mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet is from increased outlet glacier discharge along its southeastern margin. While previous investigations of the region’s two largest glaciers suggest that acceleration is a dynamic response to thinning and retreat of the calving front, it is unknown whether this mechanism can explain regional acceleration and what forcing is responsible for initiating rapid thinning and retreat. We examine seasonal and interannual changes in ice-front position, surface elevation and flow speed for 32 glaciers along the southeastern coast between 2000 and 2006. While substantial seasonality in front position and speed is apparent, nearly all the observed glaciers show net retreat, thinning and acceleration, with speed-up corresponding to retreat. The ratio of retreat to the along-flow stress-coupling length is proportional to the relative increase in speed, consistent with typical ice-flow and sliding laws. This affirms that speed-up results from loss of resistive stress at the front during retreat, which leads to along-flow stress transfer. Large retreats were often preceded by the formation of a flat or reverse-sloped surface near the front, indicating that subsequent retreats were influenced by the reversed bed slope. Many retreats began with an increase in thinning rates near the front in the summer of 2003, a year of record high coastal-air and sea-surface temperatures. This anomaly was driven in part by recent warming, suggesting that episodes of speed-up and retreat may become more common in a warmer climate.

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