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> Forsiden > Publikationer > Geology of Greenland Survey Bulletin > Vol. 191 Geol. Greenl. Surv. Bull. > Review of Greenland Activities 2001, pp 150-156


Glaciological investigations on ice-sheet response in South Greenland

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The reaction of the world's large ice sheets to global cli-
mate change is still in the focus of scientific debate. Recent
investigations have shown pronounced thinning in the
southern part of the Greenland ice sheet (Inland Ice). In
order to investigate the cause of the observed thinning
and to judge the sensitivity of this part of the ice sheet a
combined field work, remote sensing and modelling pro-
ject was designed. A glaciological transect was estab-
lished in May 2001 on one of the main outlet glaciers in
South Greenland (Fig. 1), and the first data are now avail-
able. In addition, the history of the glacier variations dur-
ing the last 40 years has been reconstructed.
The Inland Ice in relation to sea-level
and climate change
During the past few decades increasing scientific evi-
dence has indicated that global climate is changing pro-
foundly over a wide variety of timescales, including
the possibility of fast (less than centuries) temperature
fluctuations of several degrees (Johnsen et al. 1998;
Flückiger et al. 1999). Accumulated evidence shows
that since the onset of the industrial revolution in the
middle of the 19th century human activities have sig-
nificantly influenced the world's climate system
(Houghton et al. 1996). Over roughly the same period
an increase in annual mean temperatures in the north-
ern hemisphere of about half a degree has been
observed (Mann et al. 1998), which may or may not be
attributed to human activities. The relationship between
human impact and natural climate variations still remains
unclear, and a better understanding of the complex cli-
mate interactions is thus highly desirable.
One of the key factors in understanding the climatic
system is the interaction of the cryosphere with other
components of global climate. Especially important are
the high reflectivity of snow and ice for solar radiation
Glaciological investigations on ice-sheet response in
South Greenland
Christoph Mayer, Carl E. Bøggild, Steffen Podlech, Ole B. Olesen, Andreas P. Ahlstrøm and
William Krabill
10 km
AMS 72
Inland Ice
AMS 71
Flight route
500 km
Fig. 1. Map of the investigated area and
its location. The automatic mass-balance
stations (AMS) and the mass-balance
stakes are marked. The flight track of the
NASA laser altimetry measurements from
summer 2001 is shown in red. N: Nuuk;
Na: Narsarsuaq. Topographic base:
G/250 Vector. Copyright: Kort &
Matrikelstyrelsen, 1998.
Geology of Greenland Survey Bulletin 191, 150­156 (2002) © GEUS, 2002
GSB191-Indhold 13/12/02 11:34 Side 150
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(albedo) and the influence of meltwater runoff from the
large ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland on deep
ocean water circulation (Fairbanks 1989). In addition,
meltwater from glaciers and from the ice sheets have
a direct influence on sea level. Fluctuations range from
120 m below the present sea level during the last glacial
maximum to 6 m above in the last interglacial (130 000
to 110 000 years ago; Hvidberg 2000), where the con-
tribution from the Greenland ice sheet may have been
as much as four to five metres (Cuffey & Marshall 2000).
The potential influence of the Inland Ice on future sea-
level changes, as well as on climatic feedback mecha-
nisms, therefore seems to be of considerable importance.
However, present knowledge about the state of balance
and especially the sensitivity of the ice sheet to short-
and medium-term climate fluctuations is insufficient for
a clear evaluation of its contribution to current and near
future sea-level changes (Warrick et al. 1996).
Over the past few years great efforts have been under-
taken to gain insight into the mass-balance conditions
of the Inland Ice (e.g. Reeh & Starzer 1996; Van de Wal
& Ekholm 1996; Ohmura et al. 1999; Van der Veen &
Bolzan 1999; Janssens & Huybrechts 2000). One of the
most comprehensive initiatives to obtain information
on the state of the Greenland ice sheet is the Program
for Arctic Climate Assessment (PARCA; for web address
see end of paper) co-ordinated by NASA. Results from
extensive field programmes, including ice-penetrating
radar, laser altimetry, GPS measurements and automatic
weather stations, show no substantial elevation changes
in the higher parts of the ice sheet (Thomas et al. 2000).
However, at lower altitudes areas with extensive thin-
ning, but also minor areas of thickening, of the ice sheet
seem to exist (Krabill et al. 1999, 2000). Specifically,
strong thinning and recession are indicated for the ice
margin in East Greenland, and over the south-western
lobe of the Inland Ice in the study area (Fig. 1).
At present no clear answers can be given as to the
state of balance of the Inland Ice and its future reac-
tion to changing climate conditions. This holds espe-
cially for the ablation zone, where reactions may be rapid
in contrast to the general millennium-scale reaction
time of the ice sheet as a whole. In this area remote
sensing data need to be supported and supplemented
by detailed ground-based, high-resolution studies in
order to detect sensitive areas and determine the gov-
erning processes.
An integrated project on marginal
ice-sheet response
The study area in South Greenland is probably one of
the most vulnerable areas of the Inland Ice in respect
to climate induced thinning. The observed thinning
rates seem to be due to a combination of variations in
mass balance and the dynamic response of the ice flow
to recent climatic changes (Krabill et al. 1999; Houghton
et al. 2001). The main aims of the project initiated in
2001, apart from improved and continued remote sens-
ing observations, are to improve estimates for surface
mass balance from in situ observations and balance
models, to improve modelling the dynamics of ice
sheets (requiring combined studies of glaciological and
satellite observations), and to establish a baseline for
long-term glacier/ice-sheet observations (Houghton et
al. 2001). The project by the glaciology group at the
Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS)
on the ice-sheet lobe in the study area is closely linked
to the PARCA project and the ICESAT mission coordi-
nated by NASA which is a new satellite with laser altime-
ter onboard. Furthermore a Ph.D. study is sponsored
by the Copenhagen Global Change Initiative (COGCI;
for web address see end of paper).
One of the main parts of the project is the estab-
lishment of a mass-balance transect along a represen-
tative flow line. Mass-balance measurements along this
transect will allow current ablation conditions to be
related to geographic position and elevation. Measure-
ments of surface elevation, ice velocity and ice thick-
ness are necessary for calibration of remote sensing
applications and as input for ice-dynamic models.
Another main focus of the programme is to recon-
struct the history of the ice-sheet margin on the basis
of aerial photographs and satellite images, which extend
back for nearly half a century. This time series allows
detailed estimates of the mass loss, or gain, during a
part of the 20th century marked by significant climatic
changes. In combination with climate data for this time
period, this series of images will be used as a control
data set for ice-dynamic model development, which
constitutes the third part of the project.
The ice-dynamic model will be specifically adapted
to questions arising from the field data and general
observations on thinning. This model will then be used
for investigating the sensitivity and response time to
changes where a new evaluation of the relationships
between climate change, sea-level and ice-sheet response
is anticipated.
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Field work
In late May 2001 a glaciological transect was estab-
lished on Sermilik Bræ (formerly Sermitsialik Bræ) in
South Greenland at the margin of the Inland Ice. The
transect extends from an altitude of 270 m a.s.l. on
Sermilik Bræ (glacier code 1 AI 5001, Weidick et al.
1992) up to a height of 1150 m a.s.l. on the southern
dome of the Inland Ice (Fig. 1). The transect consists
of two automatic mass-balance stations (AMS) placed
at each end of the transect and four ablation stakes
placed along the flow line.
Due to the risk of loss of data in areas with high abla-
tion rates, a new concept for the station layout has
been developed to replace the former set-up of using
several long stakes drilled into the ice, which often
became unstable. The new AMS concept consists of one
mast, supported by wires, and set on a tripod (Fig. 2).
The AMS can be transported, and installed on site by
two persons in about two hours. The stations measure
a variety of climatic and glaciological parameters at
hourly intervals. The orientation of the mast to the ver-
tical and to magnetic north is also recorded, in order
to allow for possible corrections of the parameter records.
Fig. 2. The new one-mast design of the automatic mass-balance
stations installed in the field in May 2001; height c. 2.2 m (AMS
71). The gallows with the sonic ranger for surface height mea-
surements can be seen to the right.
Temperature (
Wind speed (m/s)
Day of year
Day of year
24 hour running average AMS 71
24 hour running average AMS 72
24 hour running average AMS 71
24 hour running average AMS 72
Fig. 3. Data examples from the automatic mass-balance stations for the summer season of 2001. Red: lower station. Blue: upper sta-
tion. Displayed are the daily means of temperature (left) and wind speed (right) for both stations. The temperature variation ranges
from ­6.2 to +17.4°C for the upper and ­1.1 to +12.0°C for the lower station. The maximum wind speed during the measured period
was 15.8 m/s at the upper station.
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In order to measure ablation automatically over sev-
eral years without having to re-drill stakes at every visit,
a new system was installed at the lower AMS. This con-
sists of a ventilated stainless steel pressure transducer
connected to a 20 m fibre-reinforced PVC hose filled
with alcohol.
At the revisit to the site in September 2001 the new
ablation system was still functioning, and the record-
ings from the logger are in very good agreement with
data from the sonic ranger and the classically measured
melting of 4.95 m in 106 days.
The positions of both AMSs and stakes were remea-
sured by a high-precision GPS receiver on the September
visit, except for stake no. 750. The analysis of the mea-
surements shows a velocity of the upper station of 0.4
m/day, increasing downstream to 1.4 m/day at the
lower station close to the glacier front. Data records for
temperature and wind speed at both stations during
the summer of 2001 are shown in Fig. 3. Both parameters
are generally in phase for the two stations, but tem-
perature inversions can be found on days with very low
wind speed at the lower station. The data sets for the
stations will be used for further analysis of melting con-
ditions and the distribution of melting in this area.
During the 2001 field season the NASA airborne ice
radar and laser altimetry system was used for investi-
gations in southern Greenland within the PARCA pro-
ject. By request, one flight track was planned to cover
the GEUS glaciological transect (Fig. 1). Unfortunately,
the ice radar data could not provide thickness data over
this track because of heavily crevassed and irregular sur-
face conditions. However, the laser altimetry data are
of very good quality, and are currently being analysed
in combination with the GPS measurements and infor-
mation from the satellite images.
Glacier-margin detection from satellite
During the past 50 years the glacier Sermilik Bræ has
undergone significant variations in its dimensions. Within
Table 1. Temporal distribution of the images used for the determination of the glacier margin position
Pixel resolution is given in brackets
x (~ 3 m)
x (~ 3 m)
x (1.5 m)
x (80 m)
x (80 m)
x (80 m)
x (80 m)
x (80 m)
x (30 m)
Image source
Image date
Landsat 2
(channel 3)
Landsat 5
(channel 3)
Landsat 7
(channel 3)
5 km
Fig. 4. Aerial views of the Sermilik Bræ
region. A: Aerial photograph from 1953;
B: Satellite image from Landsat 7
obtained in 2000. In the Landsat image
shown in Fig. 5 Qalerallit Sermia W and
Qalerallit Sermia E are also seen.
GSB191-Indhold 13/12/02 11:34 Side 153
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the framework of the project, investigations are focused
on the retreat of Sermilik Bræ and on the two branches
of Qalerallit Sermia (formerly Qaleragdlit sermia, glac-
ier code 1 AH 02001, Weidick et al. 1992), the glacier
to the east (Fig. 1). The retreat of these glaciers can be
determined from aerial photography from 1953 and
comparisons of satellite images from 1965, 1967, 1979,
1980, 1993, 1995 and 2000. The satellite images were
obtained from the CORONA satellite mission and from
the continuous Landsat series, including images from
Landsat 2, 5 and 7. Information about the available
images and the channels used is given in Table 1. As
an example, the pronounced retreat of Sermilik Bræ
between 1953 and 2000 is illustrated in Fig. 4.
The resolution of all images is better than 80 m,
which allows a high-resolution determination of the
glacier retreat over several kilometres. Identification of
between 20 to 40 ground control points over the area
of interest in each of the images allows correlation of
all images with a master image, for which a Landsat 7
image with a pixel resolution of 30 m was used. The
measurements of glacier tongue variations were deter-
mined from central flow lines on the glaciers. For
Qalerallit Sermia W and Qalerallit Sermia E retreat is
measured with respect to 1965 as reference year.
The earliest observations on Sermilik Bræ date from
the mid-19th century, but there are insufficient records
prior to 1947 to establish a continuous history of retreat
or advance. Between 1947 and 1953, the glacier front of
Sermilik Bræ was reported as stationary (Weidick 1959),
but since 1953 our observations indicate a semi-contin-
uous retreat. This general trend has also been observed
for nearby glaciers on the series of satellite images.
However, an aerial photograph from 1985 shows the
glacier front of Sermilik Bræ at almost the same position
as it was in 1980, followed by a retreat once again.
Satellite images from 1993 show that the tongue of
Sermilik Bræ was floating over several kilometres of the
front at this time. The rate of retreat changed consider-
ably between 1985 and 1993. The break up of a con-
siderable part of the glacier tongue (Figs 4, 5) cannot yet
be precisely dated. Between 1995 and 2000 retreat events
sum up to about 1900 m at Sermilik Bræ (Fig. 6).
Climatic effects, such as a general global warming,
cannot account for the regional retreat of the glaciers
in southern Greenland. Recent studies have shown that
temperatures in western Greenland and adjacent regions
in the North Atlantic have experienced a slight cooling
over the last half century, in contrast to the global trend
(Chapman & Walsh 1993; Hansen et al. in press). In
agreement with these findings, meteorological obser-
vations at Nuuk and Narsarsuaq have also shown a
cooling trend over the last 50 years. However, rela-
tively warmer periods have been noted between 1940
and 1950 and also during the 1980s and 1990s (Jørgensen
2001). The latter short-term temperature increases may
have led to higher melt rates, particularly at the ice-sheet
margin, and may be linked to the rapid disintegration
of the floating glacier tongue and an associated mas-
sive ice discharge observed at Sermilik Bræ between
1993 and 1995 (Fig. 5A).
The satellite images show an extensive moraine cor-
responding to the position of the last major glacier
advance in the late 19th century, which extends through-
20 km
Fig. 5. Satellite images from Landsat 5 obtained in 1993 (A) and 1995 (B) showing changes of the snout of Sermilik Bræ. See also
text and Table 1.
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out the fjord. The submerged part of this moraine acts
as a natural barrier, which prevents the icebergs float-
ing out of the fjord (Figs 4B, 5B). This observation
essentially corresponds to the situation described by
Bloch (1893) and the outline of the glacier front on his
handdrawn map.
Future perspectives
Glacier variations in southern Greenland do not seem
to be related only to climatic influence on the surface
mass balance. Dynamic changes in ice-sheet geometry
and basal conditions connected to climatic variations
on a much longer timescale appear also to be signifi-
cant. With the mass-balance transect in place, and also
surveyed with laser altimetry, future changes in the
study area can be mapped accurately and compared with
the actual climatic and surface mass-balance data, which
will allow discrimination between mass-balance effects
and dynamic reactions. Climatic conditions during the
periods of recession of the past 40 years need to be inves-
tigated using climate data from nearby weather sta-
tions, or from climate proxy data. This compiled glacier
history can then be used as a benchmark for testing of
the ice-dynamic model.
Further information
PARCA project see: http://cires.colorado.edu/parca.html
ICESAT mission see: http://icesat.gsfc.nasa.gov/intro.html
COGCI school see: http://www.cogci.dk
Support from COGCI to S.P. for a Ph.D. study based on this pro-
ject is gratefully acknowledged. Thanks are due to Frands Schjøth
and Tapani Tukiainen (GEUS) for making the necessary maps avail-
able, and to the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum, Government
of Greenland, for providing financial support.
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Authors' addresses
C.M., C.E.B, S.P, O.B.O. & A.P.A., Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, Øster Voldgade 10, DK-1350 Copenhagen K, Denmark.
E-mail: cm@geus.dk
W.K., Laboratory for Hydrospheric Processes, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Wallops Flight Facility, Building N-159, Wallops
Island, VA 23337, USA.
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Review of Greenland Activities 2001, pp 150-156