State of the Planet

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New Project Will Study Greenland’s Helheim Glacier in Unprecedented Detail

marco tedesco and mark bennett measure albedo in greenland
Lamont’s Marco Tedesco (right) measures the intensity and spectra of sunlight reflected off of ice in a spot near Kangerlussuaq in West Greenland. Photo: Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute

A new project will study Greenland’s Helheim Glacier in unprecedented detail, using drones, laser scanners, and high-resolution models to untangle the processes that are driving ice loss in this region.

The research will be carried out by scientist Marco Tedesco from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and colleagues at partner institutions. It is supported by a multimillion dollar grant from the California-based Heising-Simons Foundation.

The Greenland Ice Sheet plays an important role in global sea level change in a warming world by releasing increasing amounts of freshwater into the ocean. Rapid mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet is now responsible for 25 percent of present-day sea level rise, making Greenland the largest single contributor to sea level rise. The majority of ice loss is due to acceleration, retreat, and thinning of glaciers at the ice-ocean interface, through processes that remain poorly understood. The Helheim, on the eastern coast of Greenland, is one of the ice sheet’s largest outlet glaciers and has been rapidly shrinking since 2001. The accelerated retreat of glaciers can exert effects worldwide, from causing sea level rise to adding freshwater to oceans, both of which can affect weather and ocean cycles in the North Atlantic.

The overarching goal of the new project is to improve understanding of the processes occurring at the marine margin of Helheim Glacier, using innovative data-gathering and modeling techniques.

“The project is allowing us to study the Helheim system in its glaciology, atmospheric, and ocean aspects and link them together to provide a picture that will help us understand the mechanisms that drive mass loss and the relative role of atmosphere and ocean on this,” explained Tedesco.

The team will use drones, both above and below water, as well as lasers scanning the ice flow to gather information at a very precise scale.

“We will be running models at ultra-high spatial resolution and combine those outputs with remote sensing to capture what we do well and we don’t. It will be unprecedented and amazing,” said Tedesco.

The high-resolution models will include snowfall, runoff, light reflected off of snow and ice, and other factors responsible for mass loss or gain. “We will also study how the atmospheric changes recently observed in the Arctic and strongly driven by jet stream disruption have been affecting Helheim,” said Tedesco.

The team will spend three to four years collecting comprehensive and parallel measurements of multiple systems to gain an understanding of what drives changes to the Helheim. Additionally, the research will provide an open source database for continued study.

Whereas most federally funded system-based research in the Arctic focuses on the entire Arctic system, this project represents a first in that private donations are supporting a system-based analysis concentrated on a specific region or subsystem.

The team — which includes colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California; Woods Hole Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts; University of California, Irvine; Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, New Hampshire; Kansas University; Penn State University; and Oregon State University — performed the first research campaign during the past summer, and is in the planning stages to coordinate next steps.

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