Rules of thumb about ice sheets and sea level rise:

One of the advantages of being part of a research institute are the fascinating conversations that happen over lunch between colleagues working in different areas. Today was a classic with conversation ranging from the stratospheric effects of the Hunga-Tonga eruption to the different types of snow crystals that form in snow packs and their impacts on sea ice. However, the conversation started with a request to me for some rules of thumb on sea level rise, so here they are: 

The Greenland ice sheet loses on average around 250 to 280 Gigatonnes of ice each year – that’s from all processes including melt and surface runoff, iceberg calving, basal melting and submarine melting.

It varies a bit from year to year but over the last 26 years the ice sheet has either lost ice or been neutral (and it’s had very few neutral mass budget years).

Change in mass of the Greenland ice sheet from the GRACE and GRACE-FO satellites since 2022

The Antarctic ice sheet loses on average about 100 Gigatonnes of ice net each year (probably) from all processes, it receives about 2000 to 2500 Gigatonnes of snow (depending a bit on where you measure Antarctica to end) whereas Greenland receives around ~700 gigatonnes of snow.

The small glaciers and ice caps around the world contribute a bit more to sea level rise in total each year than each of the big ice sheets currently, but they will be quickly exhausted. As there are thousands of small glaciers, most of which are not well monitored, we have to estimate how these are changing using models. It appears that on avergae they add around 0.7 to 1 mm of global sea level rise each year.

Glacier changes are not well measured at most glaciers but this analysis from Copernicus is based on a few that are in Europe.

The thermal expansion of the oceans is still the largest part of currently observed sea level rise but on an annual basis, the cryosphere now often contributes more.

As I’ve elaborated on before, 1 Gigatonne of water is hard to visualise, it is a cube 1 km long, 1 km wide and 1 km high and about 360 Gigatonnes (or km3) raise global average sea level by 1 mm, so Greenland contributes around a half to three quarters of a millimetre to global sea level every year. My old friend Lindsey Nicholson at Innsbruck University has a cool blog (which you should check out here) and shows this visualisation if it helps..

What a gigatonne looks like, visualisation shared by Dr Alex Gardner, JPL from this talk on glaciers and sea level rise

Since the early 1990s sea level rises about 3mm every year, but over the last 5 years it has been closer to 4.5mm per year. The curve over the last 2 decades has followed a quadratic shape rather than a linear shape – put simply, this means sea level is accelerating. The sea rose 10mm from January 2020 to August 2021.

Global mean sea level rise since the early 1990’s as shown in the WMO state of the climate report 2022

An El Nino, which some are warning could occur this year, may cause a temporary pause or at least slow down in sea level rise, even as global air temperatures increase, mostly due to the large amounts of rain that are associated with it, but this will only be temporary.

While the rate (3-4 mm per year) doesn’t sound like very much, every mm counts, increasing the risk of coastal flooding and storm surges affecting coastal communities.

Finally, global sea level rise is not distributed evenly, broadly speaking, the further away from an ice mass you are, the more likely it is to affect your local sea level, so Greenland matters less than Antarctica in Northern Europe.

NOAA’s visualisation of observed sea level rise from satellites in the background and at tide gauge locations (the round dots) since 1993, note the uneven pattern which reflects processes like ocean currents, atmospheric circulation and winds, local relative land movements and gravitational changes due to changing ice masses.

I hope these little rules of thumb help. Feel free to add more (or disagree) in the comments..

Changes in SW Greenland ice sheet melt

A paper my colleague Peter Langen wrote together with myself and various other collaborators and colleagues has just come out in the Journal of Climate. I notice that the Climate Lab Book regularly present summaries of their papers so here I try to give a quick overview of ours. The model output used in this run is available now for download.

The climate of Greenland has been changing over the last 20 or so years, especially in the south. In this paper we showed that the amount of melt and liquid water run off from the ice sheet in the south west has increased at the same time as the equilibrium line (roughly analogous to the snow line at the end of summer on the ice sheet) has started to move up the ice sheet. Unlike previous periods when we infer the same thing happened this can be attributed to warmer summers rather than drier winters.

Map showing area around Nuuk
The area we focus on in this study is in SW Greenland close to Nuuk, the capital. White shows glaciers, blue is sea, brown is land not covered by ice.

We focused on the area close to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, as we had access to a rather useful but unusual (in Greenland) dataset gathered by Asiaq the Greenland survey. They have been measuring the run off from a lake near the margin of the ice sheet for some years and made this available to us in order to test the model predictions. This kind of measurement is particularly useful as it integrates melt and run-off from a wider area than the usual point measurements. As our model is run at 5.5 km resolution, one grid cell has to approximate all the properties of a 5.5 km grid cell. Imagine your house and how much land varies in type, shape and use in a 5.5 km square centred on your house and you begin to appreciate the problems of using a single point observation to assess what is essentially an area simulation! This is even more difficult in mountainous areas close to the sea, like the fjords of Norway or err, around south west Greenland (see below).

Represent this in a 5.5km grid cell, include glacier, sea and mountain...  Godthåbsfjord near Nuuk in August
The beautiful fjords near Nuuk. Represent this in a 5.5km grid cell…

The HIRHAM5 model is one of very few regional climate models that are run at sufficiently high resolution to start to clearly see the climate influences of mountains, fjords etc in Greenland, which meant we didn’t need to do additional statistical downscaling to see results that matched quite closely the measured discharge from the lake.

Graph comparing modelled versus measured discharge as a daily mean from Lake Tasersuaq near Nuuk, Greenland. The model output was summed over the Tasersuaq drainage basin and smoothed by averaging over the previous 7 days. This is because the model does not have a meltwater routing scheme so we estimated how long it takes for melt and run-off fromt he ice sheet to reach this point.
Graph comparing modelled versus measured discharge as a daily mean from Lake Tasersuaq near Nuuk, Greenland. The model output was summed over the Tasersuaq drainage basin and smoothed by averaging over the previous 7 days. This is because the model does not have a meltwater routing scheme so we estimated how long it takes for melt and run-off from the ice sheet to reach this point.

We were pretty happy to see that HIRHAM5 manages to reproduce this record well. There’s tons of other interesting stuff in the paper including a nice comparison of the first decade of the simulation with the last decade of the simulation, showing that the two look quite different with much more melt, and a lower surface mass balance (the amount of snowfall minus the amount of melt and run – off) per year in recent years.

Red shows where more snow and ice melts than falls and blue shows where more snow falls than is melted on average each year.
Red shows where more snow and ice melts than falls and blue shows where more snow falls than is melted on average each year.

Now, as we work at DMI, we have access to lots of climate records for Greenland. (Actually everyone does, the data is open access and can be downloaded). This means we can compare the measurements in the nearest location, Nuuk, for a bit more than a century. Statistically we can see the last few years have been particularly warm, maybe even warmer than the well known warm spell in the 1920s – 1940s  in Greenland.

Graphs comparing and extending the model simulation back in time with Nuuk observations
Graphs comparing and extending the model simulation back in time with Nuuk observations

There is lots more to be said about this paper, we confirm for example the role of increasing incoming solar radiation (largely a consequence of large scale atmospheric flow leading to clearer skies) and we show some nice results which show how the model is able to reproduce observations at the surface, so I urge you to read it (pdf here) but hopefully this summary has given a decent overview of our model simulations and what we can use them for.

I may get to the future projections next time…

Let it snow…

I have found myself shovelling a lot of snow this winter. As with last winter, it has been cold and snowy across northern Europe so far, which has led to the usual questioning of climate change by the usual suspects. There is some very good work examining this on the real climate blog and Marcus Brigstocke did his usual amusing best on the Now Show towards the end of last year, so I’m not going to write about the difference between weather and climate, or about how regional and global average temperatures differ. Rather, the time spent shovelling snow and wandering around the city streets camera in hand to take photos, really brought home how many of the snow processes that are subjects of active research in remote or mountainous areas are currently on display in our cities.

For instance, today in the local park I noticed that there is preferential melt occurring around the trees. The dark tree trunks absorb and emit more radiation that then melts snow around the trees faster than it melts in the open areas of the lawn. This is an important consideration in the planting of forests in snowy areas, since the presence of vast forests can significantly alter the albedo of the earth’s surface, that is how much radiation is reflected back in to space. Planting trees in the tundra to combat climate change may have the unintended effect of actually enhancing warming through changes of this kind.

Picture of glacier table - a boulder balanced on a thin stack of ice
Glacier table in Switzerland (Glaciers Online)

The process can also be seen to spectacular effect on glaciers, where rocks and boulders shield the ice below them from melting but enhance it around them, leading to the formation of so-called glacier tables, such as this one in Switzerland (from glaciers online).

More seriously, the heavy snow on rooves around the city is currently posing an avalanche hazard rarely encountered outside the mountains. The effect of sunshine on heavy snow, which is resting on a slope of a critical angle, can be extremely dangerous to the unwary. As are the large numbers of icicles which have developed. These are not just a sign of poorly insulated buildings (where the heat leaking out has caused the snow to melt and then quickly refreeze in the low temperatures we’ve had). Icicles falling from buildings show the same mechanics as seracs falling from the steep parts of glaciers known as ice falls. In this case, the ice builds up to such a degree that the sheer weight of it eventually causes fracture when a critical threshold is reached. Pedestrians are learning to walk on the outside of pavements and to look up frequently at the overhanging cornices of snow and ice.

But back to the snow shovelling. I have not done so much digging since fieldwork last winter in Svalbard, where we set up some experiments to study the properties of snow and how this affects the melt, or conversely the growth, of glaciers. Specifically, we were studying the effects of liquid water from snow melt or rain on the snow pack and the glacier surface. Liquid water filters into the snow, or else runs off bare glacier ice if there is no snow and will typically freeze, forming ice lenses in the snow pack, or large areas of what is known as superimposed ice on the glacier surface.   As you can imagine, there was a lot of snow shovelling, especially as the high winds on the glacier kept filling in the trenches we dug to work in.

Now this probably sounds like a fairly esoteric set of experiments, but the purpose is actually quite serious, since we need to know how much melt water refreezes to work out how much the glaciers and large ice sheets of the world are melting and how sea level rise is likely to progress in the future in a warming world.

Identifying the melt area of a glacier or ice sheet is a relatively straightforward task using satellite imagery, but identifying how much of that melt runs off or refreezes is impossible at present, so we generally use a model, based on observations and experiments like these, to make an approximation. We also need to factor in the effect of latent heat, (heat that is released when liquid water becomes solid ice) since this can warm up the snow pack significantly. In Greenland for instance, it is likely that the effects of higher temperatures over the last 20 years or so have been buffered somewhat by the snow pack and refreezing processes. However, as temperatures continue to increase, melt will probably accelerate partly because the saturated snow pack cannot absorb additional melt water but also because it has a higher temperature from the release of latent heat and thus requires less additional energy to melt.

Last winter I tested out some of the techniques we used in Svalbard, in a pile of snow in my back garden. I am also aware of at least one study into permafrost, where patterned ground usually found in Arctic climates was created in a back garden in St Andrews, so it’s even possible to do valid experimental work during the winter time when conditions are right. However, the climate of glaciated regions is generally unlike that of the cities of Europe so there will still be a need to go to places like Svalbard to do experiments quantifying these kind of processes. Nevertheless, I still find this kind of weather inspiring and I’m hoping to get more insights as the winter progresses.