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© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

  03 Aug 2020

03 Aug 2020

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This preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

Can katabatic winds directly force retreat of Greenland outlet glaciers? Hypothesis test on Helheim Glacier in Sermilik Fjord

Iain Wheel1,2, Poul Christoffersen1, and Sebastian H. Mernild3,4,5,6 Iain Wheel et al.
  • 1Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  • 2Department of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, UK
  • 3Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center, Bergen, Norway
  • 4Geophysical Institute, University of Bergen, Norway
  • 5Faculty of Engineering and Science, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, Sogndal, Norway
  • 6Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic Program, University de Magallanes, Punta Arenas, Chile

Abstract. Katabatic winds drive sea ice export from glaciated fjords across Greenland and other high latitude environments, but few studies have investigated the extent to which they also drive inflow of warm water and whether they have a direct impact on glaciers stability. Using ERA5 reanalysis data, verified by two local weather stations, we create a timeseries of katabatic winds across Sermilik Fjord in southeast Greenland. Using this along with hydrographic data, from 2009–2013, positioned across the fjord, we analyse changes in fjord circulation during individual katabatic flows. Changes in melange presence are analysed too, via the use of MODIS and Landsat-7 satellite imagery. We show that warm water influxes are associated with katabatic winds, and that the potential submarine melt rates vary up to four-fold, dependant on katabatic wind strength. Rapid retreat of Helheim Glacier occurred during strong downslope wind events which removed the ice melange, and so the well documented retreat of Helheim between 2001–2005 is predicted to be in part because of strong katabatic winds. Removal of the ice-melange led to a series of calving events, driven by a lack of buttressing and weakness propagation up the glacier causing a retreat of up to 1.5 km. In contrast to previous research in which katabatic winds were seen as having an indirect influence on glaciers, we report direct forcing on Helheim Glacier through episodes of retreat occurring in response to inflow of warm water masses and removal of proglacial ice melange after downslope wind events.

Iain Wheel et al.

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Iain Wheel et al.

Iain Wheel et al.


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Latest update: 23 Sep 2020
Publications Copernicus
Short summary
Down-fjord winds, known as katabatic winds, are shown to increase water temperatures close to Helheim Glacier through circulation changes. More importantly, strong winds are shown to break up the sea-ice and iceberg matrix in front of the glacier which through a loss of support to the glacier leads to retreat of up to 1.5 km. Therefore katabatic winds are hypothesised to play an important role in the retreat of Helheim Glacier and to be important in the retreat of other Greenland glaciers.
Down-fjord winds, known as katabatic winds, are shown to increase water temperatures close to...