Cryospheric Sciences

ice cap

Image of the Week – A high-resolution picture of Greenland’s surface mass balance

Image of the Week – A high-resolution picture of Greenland’s surface mass balance

The Greenland ice sheet – the world’s second largest ice mass – stores about one tenth of the Earth’s freshwater. If totally melted, this would rise global sea level by 7.4 m, affecting low-lying regions worldwide. Since the 1990s, the warmer atmosphere and ocean have increased the melt at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, accelerating the ice loss through increased runoff of meltwater and iceberg discharge in the ocean.

Simulating the climate with a regional model

To understand the causes of the recent ice loss acceleration in Greenland, we use the Regional Atmospheric Climate Model RACMO2.3 (Noël et al. 2015) that simulates the evolution of the surface mass balance, that is the difference between mass gain from snowfall and mass loss from sublimation, drifting snow erosion and meltwater runoff. Using this data set, we identify three different regions on the ice sheet (Fig. 1):

  • the inland accumulation zone (blue) where Greenland gains mass at the surface as snowfall exceeds sublimation and runoff,

  • the ablation zone (red) at the ice sheet margins which loses mass as meltwater runoff exceeds snowfall.

  • the equilibrium line (white) that separates these two areas.

From 11 km to 1 km : downscaling RACMO2.3

To cover large areas while overcoming time-consuming computations, RACMO2.3 is run at a relatively coarse horizontal resolution of 11 km for the period 1958-2015. At this resolution, the model does not resolve small glaciated bodies (Fig. 2a), such as narrow marginal glaciers (few km wide) and small peripheral ice caps (ice masses detached from the big ice sheet). Yet, these areas contribute significantly to ongoing sea-level rise. To solve this, we developed a downscaling algorithm (Noël et al., 2016) that reprojects the original RACMO2.3 output on a 1 km ice mask and topography derived from the Greenland Ice Mapping Project (GIMP) digital elevation model (Howat et al., 2014). The downscaled product accurately reproduces the large mass loss rates in narrow ablation zones, marginal outlet glaciers, and peripheral ice caps (Fig. 2b).

Fig. 2: Surface mass balance (SMB) of central east Greenland a) modelled by RACMO2.3 at 11 km, b) downscaled to 1 km (1958-2015). The 1 km product (b) resolves the large mass loss rates over marginal outlet glaciers [Credit: Brice Noël].


The high-resolution data set has been successfully evaluated using in situ measurements and independent satellite records derived from ICESat/CryoSat-2 (Noël et al., 2016, 2017). Recently, the downscaling method has also been applied to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, for which a similar product is now also available on request.

Endangered peripheral ice caps

Using the new 1 km data set (Fig. 1), we identified 1997 as a tipping point for the mass balance of Greenland’s peripheral ice caps (Noël et al., 2017). Before 1997, ablation (red) and accumulation zones (blue) were in approximate balance, and the ice caps remained stable (Fig. 3a). After 1997, the accumulation zone retreated to the highest sectors of the ice caps and the mass loss accelerated (Fig. 3b). This mass loss acceleration was already reported by ICESat/CryoSat-2 satellite measurements, but no clear explanation was provided. The 1 km surface mass balance provides a valuable tool to identify the processes that triggered this recent mass loss acceleration.

Fig. 3: Surface mass balance of Hans Tausen ice cap and surrounding small ice bodies in northern Greenland before (a) and after the tipping point in 1997 (b). Since 1997, the accumulation zone (blue) has shrunk and the ablation zone (red) has grown further inland, tripling the pre-1997 mass loss [Credit: Brice Noël].


Greenland ice caps are located in relatively dry regions where summer melt (ME) nominally exceeds winter snowfall (PR). To sustain the ice caps, refreezing of meltwater (RF) in the snow is therefore a key process. The snow acts as a “sponge” that buffers a large amount of meltwater which refreezes in winter. The remaining meltwater runs off to the ocean (RU) and contributes to mass loss (Fig. 4a).

Before 1997, the snow in the interior of these ice caps could compensate for additional melt by refreezing more meltwater. In 1997, following decades of increased melt, the snow became saturated with refrozen meltwater, so that any additional summer melt was forced to run off to the ocean (Fig. 4b), tripling the mass loss.

Fig. 4: Surface processes on an ice cap: the ice cap gains mass from precipitation (PR), in the form of rain and snow. a) In healthy conditions (e.g. before 1997), meltwater (ME) is partially refrozen (RF) inside the snow layer and the remainder runs off (RU) to the ocean. The mass of the ice cap is constant when the amount of precipitation equals the amount of meltwater that runs off. b) When the firn layer is saturated with refrozen meltwater, additional meltwater can no longer be refrozen, causing all meltwater to run off to the ocean. In this case, the ice cap loses mass, because the amount of precipitation is smaller than the amount of meltwater that runs off [Credit: Brice Noël].

  In 1997, following decades of increased melt, the snow became saturated with refrozen meltwater, so that any additional summer melt was forced to run off to the ocean, tripling the mass loss.

We call this a “tipping point” as it would take decades to regrow a new, healthy snow layer over these ice caps that could buffer enough summer meltwater again. In a warmer climate, rainfall will increase at the expense of snowfall, further hampering the formation of a new snow cover. In the absence of refreezing, these ice caps will undergo irreversible mass loss.

What about the Greenland ice sheet?

For now, the big Greenland ice sheet is still safe as snow in the extensive inland accumulation zone still buffers most of the summer melt (Fig. 1). At the current rate of mass loss (~300 Gt per year), it would still take 10,000 years to melt the ice sheet completely (van den Broeke et al., 2016). However, the tipping point reached for the peripheral ice caps must be regarded as an alarm-signal for the Greenland ice sheet in the near future, if temperatures continue to increase.

Data availability

The daily, 1 km Surface Mass Balance product (1958-2015) is available on request without conditions for the Greenland ice sheet, the peripheral ice caps and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Further reading

Edited by Sophie Berger

Brice Noël is a PhD Student at IMAU (Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research at Utrecht University), Netherlands. He simulates the climate of the Arctic region, including the ice masses of Greenland, Svalbard, Iceland and the Canadian Arctic, using the regional climate model RACMO2. His main focus is to identify snow/ice processes affecting the surface mass balance of these ice-covered regions. He tweets as: @BricepyNoel Contact Email:

Image of the Week – Icelandic glaciers monitored from space!

Image of the Week – Icelandic glaciers monitored from space!

Located in the North Atlantic Ocean, just south of the polar circle, Iceland is a highly fascinating land. Covered by some of the largest glaciers in Europe and hosting active volcanoes, geothermal sites and subglacial lakes, it is extremely dynamic in nature and ever changing. With this Image of the Week we will tell you a bit about the changing ice caps of Iceland and how we can monitor them from space!

Icelandic ice caps since the mid-1990s

Iceland enjoys a mild and moist climate because of the relatively warm and saline Irminger current transporting heat to its southern coast, although the cold East Greenland and East Icelandic currents may cause sea ice to form to the north. Iceland’s ice caps, which receive abundant precipitation from North Atlantic cyclones, cover about 11% of the land, and contain ~3600 km2 of ice. If they completely melted they would contribute 1 cm to Sea Level Rise (SLR).

In the period 1995-2010, Icelandic glaciers shrank every year and lost mass at an average rate of 9.5±1.5 Gton a-1 – generally reflecting higher summer temperatures and longer melting seasons than in the early 1990s (Björnsson et al., 2013). Importantly, in recent decades Iceland has been the second largest source of glacier meltwater to the North Atlantic after Greenland and its peripheral glaciers. Furthermore, surge-type outlet glaciers – which have unpredictable dynamics – are present in all Icelandic ice caps and represent as much as 75% of the area of Vatnajökull (Bjornsson et al., 2003), the largest ice cap in Europe by volume. Therefore, it is important to continuously monitor Icelandic ice caps (>90% of the whole glaciated area) at high spatial resolution. Glaciological field surveys can yield accurate measurements and are routinely performed in Iceland on all ice caps and most glaciers. However, it is not always feasible to use field methods, depending on the remoteness and size of the glacier (e.g. several glaciers and ice caps in the Arctic). Continuous monitoring of such hardly accessible areas can be achieved from space at high spatial resolution.

Continuous health check from space

Since 2010, the ESA CryoSat-2 (CS2) mission has been fundamental in retrieving ice elevation data over glacial terrain characterised by complex topography and steep slopes – notoriously hard to monitor via satellite. CS2’s radar altimeter provides the elevation of the Point-Of-Closest-Approach (POCA) – the point at the surface closest to the satellite on a straight line – every ~400 m along the flight track. The main novelty of this mission is the use of a second antenna, which allows the use of interferometry across-track to accurately infer the location of a surface reflection in presence of a slope (read more about it here). Additionally, a new and exciting application of CS2 interferometric capabilities is that we can exploit the echos after the POCA, i.e. the reflections coming from the sloping surface moments after the first one. This approach generates a swath of elevations every ~400 m and provides up to two orders of magnitude more elevation data than with conventional POCA processing (Fig. 2; Gray et al., 2013, Foresta et al., 2016).

Since 2010, the ESA CryoSat-2 (CS2) mission has been fundamental in retrieving ice elevation data

Figure 2: Example of the improved elevation data using CS2 swath-processing. CS2 swath data (colors) and conventional (circles) heights over the Austfonna ice cap (Svalbard) for two satellite passes. Swath processing delivers up to two orders of magnitude more elevation data. [Credit: Dr. N. Gourmelen,University of Edinburgh, School of GeoSciences]

This rich dataset can be used to generate maps of surface elevation change rates at sub-kilometer resolution (Figs. 1 and 3). These maps show extensive thinning of up to -10 m a-1 in marginal areas of Iceland’s ice caps, while patterns of change are more variable in their interior. Fig. 3 shows the difference in spatial coverage between the POCA and Swath approaches, with the former sampling preferentially along topographic highs (see for example the Langjökull ice cap in Fig. 3). Using these high resolution maps, it is possible to independently infer the mass balance of each ice cap purely from satellite altimetry data. Based on CS2 swath-processed elevations, between glaciological years 2010/11 and 2014/15 Iceland has lost mass at an average rate of 5.8±0.7 Gton a-1 contributing 0.016±0.002 mm a-1 to SLR (Foresta et al., 2016). The rate of mass loss is ~40% less than during the preceding 15 years, partly caused by Vatnajökull (63% of the total mass loss) having had positive mass balance during the glaciological year 2014/15 due to anomalously high precipitation. Langjökull, with widespread thinning up to the ice divide (Figs. 1 and 3), is the fastest changing ice cap in terms of mass loss per unit area.

between glaciological years 2010/11 and 2014/15 Iceland has lost mass at an average rate of 5.8±0.7 Gton a-1 contributing 0.016±0.002 mm a-1 to SLR

Beside estimating mass change at the ice cap scale, the novel swath approach demonstrates the capability to observe glaciological processes at a sub-catchment scale. Different accumulation and thinning patterns over Vatnajökull and Langjökull, for example, are directly related to past surges or subglacial volcanic eruptions, some of which happened decades ago. Their long term lingering effects on the ice cap topography are now visible from space and as the satellite data record extends we will be able to gain an increased understanding of how these effects evolve over time.

Figure 3 – Comparison between swath-processed (Swath) and conventional (POCA) surface elevation change rates over the six largest ice caps in Iceland, representing 90% of the glaciated area. V (Vatnajökull), L (Langjökull),H(Hofsjökull),M(Mýrdalsjökull), D (Drangajökull), and E (Eyjafjallajökull). The inset shows the location of individual elevation measurements by using Swath and POCA approaches over Langjökull. [Credit: After Foresta et al. (2016).]

Edited by Emma Smith

Luca Foresta is a PhD student in the Glaciology and Cryosphere Research Group at the University of Edinburgh (@EdinGlaciology), and his research focuses on improving CryoSat-2 processing as well as exploiting swath-processed CryoSat-2 data to quantify surface, volume and mass changes over ice caps.


Image of the Week — Arctic porthole, Arctic portal

Image of the Week — Arctic porthole, Arctic portal

No need to be a superhero to momentarily escape your everyday life!
For that you, can just rely on the EGU Cryosphere Blog, which cares for taking you on trips to all sorts of remote and cool places (OK, OK we have to admit that some of these places are indisputably cold 🙂).

The picture of this week was taken through the porthole of a boat in the middle of Isfjorden, one of the largest fjord in Svalbard .

What is Svalbard and why should we care about it?

Svalbard is not only the mythical home of Phillip Pullman’s armoured bears but it also an archipelago (island cluster) north of Norway, in the Arctic circle. 60 % of its surface is covered by glaciers (1615 in total) which hold enough ice to raise global sea level by 19mm. These glaciers are very varied, covering a wide range of different ice dynamic types. For example – you can find tidewater glaciers (terminating at floating ice shelves in the sea), surging glaciers (which experience cycles of rapid speed-up and slow-down) and ice caps (on the Eastern Islands).

Svalbard is a place for adventurous cryospheric fieldwork related on this blog and the subject of much scientific study, but here are a few reason why this place is significant:

  • Enhanced warming is currently occurring in the Arctic as a result of polar amplification.
  • The glaciers and ice caps in Svalbard are currently losing 5 ± 2 Gigatons of ice per year (IPCC, 2013).
  • Despite its very northern latitude (74° to 81° north), the climate in Svalbard is relatively warmer than in other islands at the same latitude. This due to the influence of the warm north Atlantic current that, in the winter, warm Svalbard up to 20°C, compared to its Russian and Canadian Arctic counterparts.

Does anyone live there?

It may surprise you to know that the Svalbard area counts more polar bears (~3500) than people living there (~2,650) ! Being sparsely populated, however, doesn’t prevent the Archipelago from having human activities such as coal mining, tourism and scientific research.

The image comes from imaggeo, what is it?

You like this image of the week? Good news, you are free to re-use it in your presentation and publication because it comes from Imaggeo, the EGU open access image repository.

(Edited by Emma Smith)


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