Articles | Volume 10, issue 3
The Cryosphere, 10, 1147–1159, 2016
The Cryosphere, 10, 1147–1159, 2016

Research article 30 May 2016

Research article | 30 May 2016

Extraordinary runoff from the Greenland ice sheet in 2012 amplified by hypsometry and depleted firn retention

Andreas Bech Mikkelsen1,2, Alun Hubbard3,4, Mike MacFerrin5, Jason Eric Box6, Sam H. Doyle4, Andrew Fitzpatrick4, Bent Hasholt1, Hannah L. Bailey7, Katrin Lindbäck8, and Rickard Pettersson8 Andreas Bech Mikkelsen et al.
  • 1Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 2Centre for Permafrost (CENPERM), University of Copenhagen, Øster Voldgade 10, Copenhagen, 1350, Denmark
  • 3Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate, Department of Geology, University of Tromsø, Dramsveien 201, 9037 Norway
  • 4Centre for Glaciology, Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University, Aberystwyth, SY23 3DB, UK
  • 5Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA
  • 6Department of Glaciology and Climate, Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • 7Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research, Periglacial Research Section, 14473 Potsdam, Germany
  • 8Department of Earth Sciences, Uppsala Universitet, Villav. 16, 752 36 Uppsala, Sweden

Abstract. It has been argued that the infiltration and retention of meltwater within firn across the percolation zone of the Greenland ice sheet has the potential to buffer up to  ∼  3.6 mm of global sea-level rise (Harper et al., 2012). Despite evidence confirming active refreezing processes above the equilibrium line, their impact on runoff and proglacial discharge has yet to be assessed. Here, we compare meteorological, melt, firn stratigraphy and discharge data from the extreme 2010 and 2012 summers to determine the relationship between atmospheric forcing and melt runoff at the land-terminating Kangerlussuaq sector of the Greenland ice sheet, which drains into the Watson River. The 6.8 km3 bulk discharge in 2012 exceeded that in 2010 by 28 %, despite only a 3 % difference in net incoming melt energy between the two years. This large disparity can be explained by a 10 % contribution of runoff originating from above the long-term equilibrium line in 2012 caused by diminished firn retention. The amplified 2012 response was compounded by catchment hypsometry; the disproportionate increase in area contributing to runoff as the melt-level rose high into the accumulation area.

Satellite imagery and aerial photographs reveal an extensive supraglacial network extending 140 km from the ice margin that confirms active meltwater runoff originating well above the equilibrium line. This runoff culminated in three days with record discharge of 3100 m3 s−1 (0.27 Gt d−1) that peaked on 11 July and washed out the Watson River Bridge. Our findings corroborate melt infiltration processes in the percolation zone, though the resulting patterns of refreezing are complex and can lead to spatially extensive, perched superimposed ice layers within the firn. In 2012, such layers extended to an elevation of at least 1840 m and provided a semi-impermeable barrier to further meltwater storage, thereby promoting widespread runoff from the accumulation area of the Greenland ice sheet that contributed directly to proglacial discharge and global sea-level rise.