Articles | Volume 9, issue 3
Research article
11 Jun 2015
Research article |  | 11 Jun 2015

Changes in the firn structure of the western Greenland Ice Sheet caused by recent warming

S. de la Peña, I. M. Howat, P. W. Nienow, M. R. van den Broeke, E. Mosley-Thompson, S. F. Price, D. Mair, B. Noël, and A. J. Sole

Abstract. Atmospheric warming over the Greenland Ice Sheet during the last 2 decades has increased the amount of surface meltwater production, resulting in the migration of melt and percolation regimes to higher altitudes and an increase in the amount of ice content from refrozen meltwater found in the firn above the superimposed ice zone. Here we present field and airborne radar observations of buried ice layers within the near-surface (0–20 m) firn in western Greenland, obtained from campaigns between 1998 and 2014. We find a sharp increase in firn-ice content in the form of thick widespread layers in the percolation zone, which decreases the capacity of the firn to store meltwater. The estimated total annual ice content retained in the near-surface firn in areas with positive surface mass balance west of the ice divide in Greenland reached a maximum of 74 ± 25 Gt in 2012, compared to the 1958–1999 average of 13 ± 2 Gt, while the percolation zone area more than doubled between 2003 and 2012. Increased melt and column densification resulted in surface lowering averaging −0.80 ± 0.39 m yr−1 between 1800 and 2800 m in the accumulation zone of western Greenland. Since 2007, modeled annual melt and refreezing rates in the percolation zone at elevations below 2100 m surpass the annual snowfall from the previous year, implying that mass gain in the region is retained after melt in the form of refrozen meltwater. If current melt trends over high elevation regions continue, subsequent changes in firn structure will have implications for the hydrology of the ice sheet and related abrupt seasonal densification could become increasingly significant for altimetry-derived ice sheet mass balance estimates.

Short summary
This paper presents an assessment of changes in the near-surface structure of the accumulation zone of the Greenland Ice Sheet caused by an increase of melt at higher elevations in the last decade, especially during the unusually warm years of 2010 and 2012. The increase in melt and firn densification complicate the interpretation of changes in the ice volume, and the observed increase in firn ice content may reduce the important meltwater buffering capacity of the Greenland Ice Sheet.