The Rapid Transformation of Steenstrup Glacier in Greenland

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The Ohio State University recently found that Steenstrup Glacier in Greenland has experienced a significant transformation from 2018 to 2021. The glacier has retreated a distance of approximately 5 miles, experienced a 20% decrease in thickness, and seen a doubling in the amount of ice it releases into the ocean. Its velocity has also quadrupled, due to intrusion of warming waters from the Atlantic. The research team aims to explore how climate change can quickly and drastically transform a region.

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According to a recent study, a once highly stable glacier in Greenland is now retreating at an unprecedented rate, likely due to the effects of rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change. A team of researchers from The Ohio State University recently discovered that Steenstrup Glacier in Greenland has undergone a significant transformation from 2018 to 2021. The glacier has retreated a distance of approximately 5 miles, experienced a 20% decrease in thickness, and seen a doubling in the amount of ice it releases into the ocean .

The Greenland Ice Sheet is the second largest ice sheet in the world, after the Antarctic ice sheet

Furthermore, its velocity has quadrupled. This makes it one of the top 10% of glaciers that contribute to the total ice discharge in the region. The study was recently published in the journal Nature Communications. The Steenstrup Glacier is part of The Greenland Ice Sheet, a body of ice that covers nearly 80% of the world’s largest island, which is also the single largest contributor to global sea rise from the cryosphere, the portion of Earth’s ecosystem that includes all of its frozen water .

The K.I.V Steenstrups Nordre Bræ glacier covers an area of about 110 km2

While the region plays a crucial part in balancing the global climate system, the area is steadily shrinking as it sheds hundreds of billions of tons of ice each year because of global warming. Over the past few decades, much of this loss has been attributed to accelerated ice discharge from tidewater glaciers, glaciers that make contact with the ocean. Many glaciologists believe that this recent uptick in ice discharge can be explained by the intrusion of warming waters that are being swept from the Atlantic into Greenlandic fjords – critical oceanic gateways that can impact the stability of local glaciers and the health of polar ecosystems .

The total ice discharge from the southeast region of Greenland was estimated around 84.9 Gt during the 2018-2021 time period

The research team aimed to test that theory by examining a glacier in the southeastern region of Greenland called K.I.V Steenstrups Nordre Bræ, an entity more colloquially known as the Steenstrup Glacier. "Up until 2016, there was nothing to suggest Steenstrup was in any way interesting," said Thomas Chudley, lead author of the study, who completed this work as a research associate at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center .

In order to measure the glacier’s retreat, glaciologists employed several technologies such as laser scanning, ground-penetration radar, and ice-penetrating radar

Chudley is now a Leverhulme research fellow at Durham University in the UK. "There were plenty of other glaciers in Greenland that had retreated dramatically since the 1990s and increased their contribution to sea level rise, but this really wasn’t one of them." As far as scientists knew, Steenstrup had not only been stable for decades but was generally insensitive to the rising temperatures that had destabilized so many other regional glaciers, likely because of its isolated position in shallow waters .

It was estimated that the Steenstrup glacier was contributing around 1.81 Gt of ice per year to the immediate ocean during 2018-2021

It wasn’t until Chudley and his colleagues compiled observational and modeling data from previous remote sensing analyses on the glacier that the team realized Steenstrup was likely experiencing melt due to anomalies in deeper Atlantic water. "Our current working hypothesis is that ocean temperatures have forced this retreat," Chudley said. "The fact that the glacier’s velocity has quadrupled in just a few years opens up new questions about how fast large ice masses can really respond to climate change .

Other tidewater glaciers in Greenland have undergone accelerated retreats at an alarming rate of up to 31 km between 2011 and 2018

" In recent years, glaciologists have been able to use satellite data to estimate the potential volume of glacial ice stored at the poles and how it might affect current sea levitational rise. However, with these results, the researchers hope to expand their observations on how quickly and drastically climate change can transform an entire region.

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