Intellectual Merit: Submarine melting of Greenland's glaciers has emerged as a key term in the ice sheet?s mass balance and as a plausible trigger for their recent acceleration, which contributed to doubling Greenland's contribution to sea-level rise. Notwithstanding its importance, our understanding of submarine melting is limited and it is presently absent or crudely parameterized in glacier, ice sheet and climate models. Greenland's tidewater glaciers end in about 600 to 800 m deep, long fjords that connect the margins of the ice sheet to the shelf. The glaciers termini are typically grounded several hundreds of meters below sea-level and, as such, are exposed to a thick portion of the fjord's water column. Unique data, recently collected by two of the investigators, from two large glacial fjords in south-east Greenland show that these are filled year-round with cold, fresh waters of Arctic origin and warm, salty waters of subtropical origin whose different properties influence the circulation at the ice-edge. Furthermore, ship-based and moored velocity measurements show that the fjords are characterized by fast, highly variable, sheared flows and a vigorous fjord/shelf exchange which, likely, play a role in transporting heat to the glaciers termini. The implication is that submarine melt rates depend on a suite of oceanic processes including externally forced fjord circulations, fjord/shelf exchange and the distribution of properties on the shelf. Yet, the details of how these processes may contribute to the submarine melt rate or affect its variability are presently unknown.
This project will fill this gap by combining the analysis of ship-based and moored data from the two fjords with a hierarchy of models (laboratory and numerical) to identify the parameters and mechanisms which control the properties and circulation in the fjords and the rate of submarine melting at the ocean/glacier interface. Having identified the controls on the submarine melt rate, the project investigators will then use historical oceanographic and atmospheric data to determine fjord conditions and submarine melt rates for the period preceding the acceleration of the glaciers when no fjord data are available. Climate model predictions will be used to estimate the potential impact of future oceanic variability on submarine melting of Greenland?s glaciers. Collaborations with experts in outlet glacier dynamics, the physics of the ice-ocean boundary and fjord circulations will provide expertise in related disciplines and a two-way exchange of information for this intrinsically multidisciplinary problem. The work proposed is aimed at understanding a newly discovered wiring of the climate system: that ocean variability can have a rapid and direct impact on the Greenland's ice sheet mass balance. It is timely because of the large and unpredicted changes that are occurring in Greenland and relevant because ice sheet/ocean interactions are presently absent from climate and ice sheet/glacier models. It is complementary to the study of ice sheet/ocean interactions around Antarctica (the more studied of the two) since both the large-scale ocean circulation and the presence of narrow, long fjords in Greenland contribute a unique set of relevant dynamical mechanisms.
Broader Impacts: This work seeks to increase our understanding of a previously overlooked, important connection in our climate system which has profound implications for our ability to accurately predict sea-level rise - an issue of grave and immediate societal concern. It is expected that results from this work will contribute to the inclusion of the relevant dynamics (even if in parameterized form) in future models and, as such, lead to the improvement of future sea level predictions. The work plan involves several international experts from complementary fields and, as such, will contribute to fostering interactions between the multiple disciplines involved and beyond national boundaries. It involves two graduate students and one post-doc who will be exposed to a cutting-edge problem and multidisciplinary team of researchers. Results from this project will be widely disseminated to scientists across disciplines, as demonstrated by the PIs long-track of organizing summer schools and working groups, and to the public through different media outlets, as shown by the recent coverage of the investigators' Greenland work in venues that include the Museum of Science in Boston, the New York Times, the Weather Channel and Italian National Television.