One of the world’s largest ice sheets is becoming unstable due to fractures from underwater “melt lakes” drone footage reveals.
Five billion litres of water was drained to the bed of the kilometre-thick Greenland Ice Sheet in under five hours – enough to lift it up by over half a metre.
The ice sheet is single largest contributor to global sea level rise.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge found it could be becoming unstable due to fractures developing in response to faster ice flow and more meltwater forming on its surface.
Using custom-built drones strong enough to withstand the extreme Arctic conditions, they made the first drone-based observations of how fractures form under meltwater lakes on the Greenland Ice Sheet.
These fractures cause catastrophic lake drainages, in which huge quantities of surface water are transferred to the sensitive environment beneath the ice, findings show.
University of Cambridge
Lead researcher Dr Poul Christoffersen, from the University of Cambridge, said: “These glaciers are already moving quite fast, so the effect of the lakes may not appear to be as dramatic as it is on slower-moving glaciers elsewhere, but the overall effect is in fact very significant.
“To date, most observations are provided by satellites. These allow us to see what’s happening over the whole ice sheet, but drone-based observations give a lot more nuance to our understanding of these lake drainages.
“We can also observe the formation and re-opening of fractures, which isn’t possible from satellites.”
Researchers conducted the study from a camp on Store Glacier in northwest Greenland.
Findings revealed how the water is transferred and how the ice sheet responds.
The team found inflowing meltwater expanded the lake and drainage began when the edge of the lake intersected a fracture, which formed one year earlier.
Each summer, thousands of lakes form on the Greenland Ice Sheet as the weather warms.
Many of these lakes can drain in just a few hours, creating caverns known as moulins, through which water descends to the bottom of the ice sheet.
These cavities typically stay open for the remainder of the melt season, as meltwater from streams and rivers on the surface descends beneath the ice.
The flow of water into the moulins may well be the world’s largest waterfalls, given that the ice sheet is typically a kilometre thick or more.
Researchers witnessed how this fracture became active and how it propagated 500 metres further into the lake, causing the lake to drain rapidly.
In multiple drone flights, they were able to document the flow of water into the fracture and the water’s subsequent pathway under the ice.
In a detailed reconstruction of the event, which is rarely observed directly, the team showed how the meltwater causes the formation of new fractures, as well as the expansion of dormant fractures.
In just five hours, five million cubic metres of water, the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, drained to the bottom of the ice sheet via the fracture, causing a new cavity to form and reducing the lake to a third of its original volume.
This caused the ice flow to accelerate from a speed of two metres per day to more than five metres per day as surface water was transferred to the bed, which in turn lifted the ice sheet by half a metre.
The drone footage supports computer models used by the same team of researchers to show that drainage of melt lakes in Greenland can occur in a chain reaction.
Researchers said the findings provide an insight as to how these chain reactions might be triggered, via lakes that can drain through existing fractures.
Scott Polar Research
Co-first author Tom Chudley, a PhD student at the Scott Polar Research and the team’s drone pilot, said: “It’s possible we’ve under-estimated the effects of these glaciers on the overall instability of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
“It’s a rare thing to actually observe these fast-draining lakes – we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.”
The drones, built at the Scott Polar Research Institute, were fitted with autopilot and navigated autonomously along pre-programmed flight paths in missions that lasted up to an hour each.
By also fitting on-board GPS, the team was able to accurately geo-locate and stitch together hundreds of photos taken during each survey.
The photos were used to create detailed 3D reconstructions of the ice sheet surface.
Findings reveal that fast-flowing glaciers in Greenland are subject to significant forcing by surface meltwater.
They also show that changes in ice flow occur on much shorter timescales than considered possible so far.
Dr Christoffersen leads the EU-funded RESPONDER project, of which this study was a part.
The RESPONDER team are using the drone footage to identify ‘hotspots’ where the ice sheet behaves sensitively.
Using drilling equipment, the team is now exploring how the water is accommodated in the basal drainage system and how the ice sheet may change over the coming decades as the climate continues to warm.
Dr Christoffersen said: “The difference between snow accumulation and loss of ice in Greenland ice sheet currently amounts to one billion tonnes of ice being lost every day.
“This net loss of ice is growing, making the Greenland Ice Sheet the single largest contributor to global sea-level rise.”
Researchers from Aberystwyth and Lancaster Universities also participated in the study which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.