Skip to main content

Terminus-driven retreat of a major southwest Greenland tidewater glacier during the early 19th century: insights from glacier reconstructions and numerical modelling

  • James M. Lea (a1), Douglas W.F. Mair (a1), Faezeh M. Nick (a2) (a3), Brice R. Rea (a1), Anker Weidick (a4), Kurt H. Kjær (a5), Mathieu Morlighem (a6), Dirk Van As (a4) and J. Edward Schofield (a1)...

Tidewater glaciers in Greenland experienced widespread retreat during the last century. Information on their behaviour prior to this is often poorly constrained due to lack of observations, while determining the drivers prior to instrumental records is also problematic. Here we present a record of the dynamics of Kangiata Nunaata Sermia (KNS), southwest Greenland, from its Little Ice Age maximum (LIAmax) to 1859 – the period before continuous air temperature observations began at Nuuk in 1866. Using glacial geomorphology, historical accounts, photographs and GIS analyses, we provide evidence KNS was at its LIAmax by 1761, had retreated by ~5 km by 1808 and a further 7 km by 1859. This predates retreat at Jakobshavn Isbræ by 43–113 years, demonstrating the asynchroneity of tidewater glacier terminus response following the LIA. We use a one-dimensional flowband model to determine the relative sensitivity of KNS to atmospheric and oceanic climate forcing. Results demonstrate that terminus forcing rather than surface mass balance drove the retreat. Modelled glacier sensitivity to submarine melt rates is also insufficient to explain the retreat observed. However, moderate increases in crevasse water depth, driving an increase in calving, are capable of causing terminus retreat of the observed magnitude and timing.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Terminus-driven retreat of a major southwest Greenland tidewater glacier during the early 19th century: insights from glacier reconstructions and numerical modelling
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Terminus-driven retreat of a major southwest Greenland tidewater glacier during the early 19th century: insights from glacier reconstructions and numerical modelling
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Terminus-driven retreat of a major southwest Greenland tidewater glacier during the early 19th century: insights from glacier reconstructions and numerical modelling
      Available formats
Hide All
Alley, RB and 13 others (2010) History of the Greenland Ice Sheet: paleoclimatic insights. Quat. Sci. Rev., 29(15–16), 17281756 (doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.02.007)
Bamber, JL, Layberry, RL and Gogineni, SP (2001) A new ice thickness and bed data set for the Greenland ice sheet. 1. Measurement, data reduction, and errors. J. Geophys. Res., 106(D24), 33 77333 780 (doi: 10.1029/2001JD900054)
Benn, DI, Hulton, NRJ and Mottram, RH (2007) ‘Calving laws’, ‘sliding laws’ and the stability of tidewater glaciers. Ann. Glaciol., 46, 123130 (doi: 10.3189/172756407782871161)
Bevan, SL, Luckman, AJ and Murray, T (2012) Glacier dynamics over the last quarter of a century at Helheim, Kangerdlugssuaq and 14 other major Greenland outlet glaciers. Cryosphere, 6(5), 923937 (doi: 10.5194/tc-6–923–2012)
Bjørk, AA and 8 others (2012) An aerial view of 80 years of climate-related glacier fluctuations in southeast Greenland. Nature Geosci., 5(6), 427432 (doi: 10.1038/ngeo1481)
Box, JE and Decker, DT (2011) Greenland marine-terminating glacier area changes: 2000–2010. Ann. Glaciol., 52(59), 9198 (doi: 10.3189/172756411799096312)
Box, JE and 11 others (2013) Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance reconstruction. Part I: net snow accumulation (1600–2009). J. Climate, 26(11), 39193934 (doi: JCLI-D-12–00373.1)
Briner, JP, Stewart, HAM, Young, NE, Philipps, W and Losee, S (2010) Using proglacial-threshold lakes to constrain fluctuations of the Jakobshavn Isbræ ice margin, western Greenland, during the Holocene. Quat. Sci. Rev., 29(27–28), 38613874 (doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.09.005)
Colgan, W, Pfeffer, WT, Rajaram, H, Abdalati, W and Balog, J (2012) Monte Carlo ice flow modeling projects a new stable configuration for Columbia Glacier, Alaska, c. 2020. Cryosphere, 6(6), 13951409 (doi: 10.5194/tc-6–1395–2012)
Cook, S, Zwinger, T, Rutt, IC, O’Neel, S and Murray, T (2012) Testing the effect of water in crevasses on a physically based calving model. Ann. Glaciol., 53(60 Pt 1), 9096 (doi: 10.3189/2012AoG60A107)
Cook, S and 6 others (2013) Modelling environmental influences on calving at Helheim Glacier, East Greenland. Cryos. Discuss., 7(5), 44074442 (doi: 10.5194/tcd-7–4407–2013)
Crantz, D (1820) The history of Greenland including an account of the mission carried on by the united brethren in that country: from the German of David Crantz, 2 vols. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London
Csatho, B, Schenk, T, Van der Veen, CJ and Krabill, WB (2008) Intermittent thinning of Jakobshavn Isbræ, West Greenland, since the Little Ice Age. J. Glaciol., 53(184), 131144 (doi: 10.3189/002214308784409035)
Cuffey, KM and Paterson, WSB (2010) The physics of glaciers, 4th edn. Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford
D’Andrea, WJ, Huang, Y, Fritz, SC and Anderson, NJ (2011) Abrupt Holocene climate change as an important factor for human migration in West Greenland. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (PNAS), 108(24), 97659769 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1101708108)
Enderlin, EM and Howat, IM (2013) Submarine melt rate estimates for floating termini of Greenland outlet glaciers (2000–2010). J. Glaciol., 59(213), 6775 (doi: 10.3189/2013JoG12J049)
Enderlin, EM, Howat, IM and Vieli, A (2013) The sensitivity of flowline models of tidewater glaciers to parameter uncertainty. Cryosphere, 7(5), 15791590 (doi:10.5194/tc-7–1579–2013)
Ettema, J and 6 others (2009) Higher surface mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet revealed by high-resolution climate modelling. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36(12), L12501 (doi: 10.1029/2009GL038110)
Fowler, AC (2010) Weertman, Lliboutry and the development of sliding theory. J. Glaciol., 56(200), 965972 (doi: 10.3189/002214311796406112)
Giesecke, KL (1910) Mineralogisches Reisejournal über Grönland 1806–13. Medd. Grønl., 35
Gogineni, S and 9 others (2001) Coherent radar ice thickness measurements over the Greenland ice sheet. J. Geophys. Res., 106(D24), 33 76133 772 (doi: 10.1029/2001JD900183)
Holland, DM, Thomas, RH,De Young, B, Ribergaard, MH and Lyberth, B (2008) Acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ triggered by warm subsurface ocean waters. Nature Geosci., 1(10), 659664 (doi: 10.1038/ngeo316)
Jamieson, SSR and 6 others (2012) Ice-stream stability on a reverse bed slope. Nature Geosci., 5(11), 799802 (doi: 10.1038/ngeo1600)
Joughin, I, Smith, BE and Holland, DM (2010a) Sensitivity of 21st century sea level to ocean-induced thinning of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. Geophys. Res. Lett., 37(20), L20502 (doi: 10.1029/2010GL044819)
Joughin, I, Smith, BE, Howat, IM, Scambos, T and Moon, T (2010b) Greenland flow variability from ice-sheet-wide velocity mapping. J. Glaciol., 56(197), 415430 (doi: 10.3189/002214310792447734)
Kamenos, NA, Hoey, TB, Nienow, P, Fallick, AE and Claverie, T (2012) Reconstructing Greenland ice sheet runoff using coralline algae. Geology, 40(12), 109510098 (doi: 10.1130/G33405.1)
Kleinschmidt, S (1859) Godthåbs distrikt (hertil en Navneliste). (Map No. KBK Netpublikation RI000074) Copenhagen
Larsen, NK, Kjær, KH, Olsen, J, Funder, S, Kjeldsen, KK and Nørgaard Pedersen, N (2011) Restricted impact of Holocene climate variations on the southern Greenland Ice Sheet. Quat. Sci. Rev., 30(21–22), 31713180 (doi: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2011.07.022)
Lea, JM, Mair, DWF and Rea, BR (2014) Evaluation of existing and new methods of tracking glacier terminus change. J. Glaciol., 60(220), 323332
Lloyd, J and 6 others (2011) A 100 yr record of ocean temperature control on the stability of Jakobshavn Isbræ, West Greenland. Geology, 39(9), 867870 (doi: 10.1130/G32076.1)
McFadden, EM, Howat, IM, Joughin, I, Smith, BE and Ahn, Y (2011) Changes in the dynamics of marine terminating outlet glaciers in west Greenland (2000–2009). J. Geophys. Res., 116(F2), F02022 (doi: 10.1029/2010JF001757)
Mercer, JH (1961) The estimation of the regimen and former firn limit of a glacier. J. Glaciol., 3(30), 10531062
Moon, T and Joughin, I (2008) Changes in ice front position on Greenland’s outlet glaciers from 1992 to 2007. J. Geophys. Res., 113(F2), F02022 (doi: 10.1029/2007JF000927)
Moon, T, Joughin, I, Smith, B and Howat, I (2012) 21st-century evolution of Greenland outlet glacier velocities. Science, 336(6081), 576578 (doi: 10.1126/science.1219985)
Morlighem, M, Rignot, E, Seroussi, H, Larour, E, Ben Dhia, H and Aubry, D (2011) A mass conservation approach for mapping glacier ice thickness. Geophys. Res. Lett., 38(19), L19503 (doi: 10.1029/2011GL048659)
Mortensen, J, Lennert, K, Bendtsen, J and Rysgaard, S (2011) Heat sources for glacial melt in a sub-Arctic fjord (Godthåbsfjord) in contact with the Greenland Ice Sheet. J. Geophys. Res., 116(C1), C01013 (doi: 10.1029/2010JC00652)
Mortensen, J and 6 others (2013) On the seasonal freshwater stratification in the proximity of fast-flowing tidewater outlet glaciers in a sub-Arctic sill fjord. J. Geophys. Res., 118(3), 13821395 (doi: 10.1002/jgrc.20134)
Murray, T and 10 others (2010) Ocean regulation hypothesis for glacier dynamics in southeast Greenland and implications for ice sheet mass changes. J. Geophys. Res., 115(F3), F03026 (doi: 10.1029/2009JF001522)
Nick, FM, Vieli, A, Howat, IM and Joughin, I (2009) Large-scale changes in Greenland outlet glacier dynamics triggered at the terminus. Nature Geosci., 2(2), 110114 (doi: 10.1038/ngeo394)
Nick, FM, Van der Veen, CJ, Vieli, A and Benn, DI (2010) A physically based calving model applied to marine outlet glaciers and implications for the glacier dynamics. J. Glaciol., 56(199), 781794 (doi: 10.3189/002214310794457344)
Nick, FM and 8 others (2012) The response of Petermann Glacier, Greenland, to large calving events, and its future stability in the context of atmospheric and oceanic warming. J. Glaciol., 58(208), 229239 (doi: 10.3189/2012JoG11J242)
Nick, FM and 7 others (2013) Future sea-level rise from Greenland’s major outlet glaciers in a warming climate. Nature, 497(7448), 235238 (doi: 10.1038/nature12068)
Nye, JF (1957) The distribution of stress and velocity in glaciers and ice-sheets. Proc. R. Soc. London, Ser. A, 239(1216), 113133 (doi: 10.1098/rspa.1957.0026)
Rignot, E, Koppes, M and Velicogna, I (2010) Rapid submarine melting of the calving faces of West Greenland glaciers. Nature Geosci., 3(3), 141218 (doi: 10.1038/ngeo765)
Rignot, E, Fenty, I, Menemenlis, D and Xu, Y (2012) Spreading of warm ocean waters around Greenland as a possible cause for glacier acceleration. Ann. Glaciol., 53(60 Pt 2), 257266 (doi: 10.3189/2012AoG60A136)
Rink, H (1856) Sydgrønlands nordlige distrikter. (Map No. KBK Netpublikation RI000095) Copenhagen
Sciascia, R, Straneo, F, Cenedese, C and Heimbach, P (2013) Seasonal variability of submarine melt rate and circulation in an East Greenland fjord. J. Geophys. Res., 118(C5), 24922506 (doi: 10.1002/jgrc.20142)
Straneo, F and 7 others (2010) Rapid circulation of warm subtropical waters in a major glacial fjord in East Greenland. Nature Geosci., 3(33), 182186 (doi: 10.1038/ngeo764)
Straneo, F and 8 others (2012) Characteristics of ocean waters reaching Greenland’s glaciers. Ann. Glaciol., 53(60 Pt 2), 202210 (doi: 10.3189/2012AoG60A059)
Thomas, RH (2004) Force-perturbation analysis of recent thinning and acceleration of Jakobshavn Isbræ, Greenland. J. Glaciol., 50(168), 5766 (doi: 10.3189/172756504781830321)
Thorhallesen, E (1776) Efterretning om rudera eller levninger af de gamle nordmœnds og islœnderes bygninger paa Grønlands vester-side, tilligemed et anhang om deres undergang sammesteds. Trykt hos A.F. Stein, Copenhagen
Van As, D, Hubbard, AL, Hasholt, B, Mikkelsen, AB, Van den Broeke, MR and Fausto, RS (2012) Large surface meltwater discharge from the Kangerlussuaq sector of the Greenland ice sheet during the record-warm year 2010 explained by detailed energy balance observations. Cryosphere, 6(1), 199209 (doi: 10.5194/tc-6–199–2012)
Van As, D and 11 others (2014) Increasing meltwater discharge from the Nuuk region of the Greenland ice sheet and implications for mass balance (1960–2012). J. Glaciol., 60(220), 314322
Van den Broeke, M and 8 others (2009) Partitioning recent Greenland mass loss. Science, 326(5955), 984986 (doi: 10.1126/science.1178176)
Van der Veen, CJ and Whillans, IM (1996) Model experiments on the evolution and stability of ice streams. Ann. Glaciol., 23, 129137
Vieli, A and Nick, FM (2011) Understanding and modelling rapid dynamic changes of tidewater outlet glaciers: issues and implications. Surv. Geophys., 32(4–5), 437458 (doi: 10.1007/s10712–011–9132–4)
Vinther, BM, Andersen, KK, Jones, PD, Briffa, KR and Cappelen, J (2006) Extending Greenland temperature records into the late eighteenth century. J. Geophys. Res., 111(D11), D11105 (doi: 10.1029/2005JD006810)
Weidick, A (1959) Glacial variations in West Greenland in historical time. Part I. South West Greenland. Bull. Grønl. Geol. Unders. 18
Weidick, A (1968) Observations on some Holocene glacier fluctuations in West Greenland. Medd. Grønl. 165(6)
Weidick, A and Bennike, O (2007) Quaternary glaciation history and glaciology of Jakobshavn Isbræ and the Disko Bugt region, West Greenland: a review. Geol. Surv. Den. Greenl. Bull. 14
Weidick, A and Citterio, M (2011) Correspondence. The ice-dammed lake Isvand, West Greenland, has lost its water. J. Glaciol., 57(201), 186188 (doi: 10.3189/002214311795306600)
Weidick, A, Bennike, O, Citterio, M and Nørgaard-Pedersen, N (2012) Neoglacial and historical glacier changes around Kangersuneq Fjord in southern West Greenland. Geol. Surv. Den. Greenl. Bull. 27
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Glaciology
  • ISSN: 0022-1430
  • EISSN: 1727-5652
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-glaciology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 19
Total number of PDF views: 54 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 175 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 10th July 2017 - 19th August 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.