Greenland’s melting landscape may foreshadow Alaska’s future

Release Date: 
Monday, March 29, 2010

CONTACT: Brian Keenan, GI Outreach Office, 907-474-5992,

Fairbanks, Alaska— University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists will travel to Greenland in April 2010 to better understand how warming ocean temperatures impact ocean-outlet glaciers on the massive arctic island. Such studies will shed light on the future of the ice-laden country, and may provide analogs on how warmer temperatures could impact Alaska’s landscape.

Martin Truffer, an associate professor at the Geophysical Institute and the UAF Physics Department, primarily studies Jacobshavn (pronounced YA-CUB-SHA-VIN) Glacier, the largest ocean-outlet glacier in Greenland. To understand its processes, he uses a variety of observational techniques, including seismic monitoring, GPS tracking, time-lapse video, tide gauges, and remote sensing. He’s found that Jakobshavn moves much faster in the new millennium, at least twice its former speed, and it calves at a greater rate. The glacier discharges more ice into the ocean, and is thinning and retreating, a trend mirrored by many other Greenland glaciers. More research needs to be done, but the implications of Jakobshavn research are chilling.

“You have to think of the ice sheet as a big bathtub with many outlets,” Truffer said. “And Jakobshavn is the biggest, so if you pull the plug on that one, the entire ice sheet starts drawing down.”

Scientists speculate that rising temperatures will act as a tipping point, causing the Greenland ice sheet to fall into “irreversible destabilization,” meaning that it will lose more ice than snowfall can replace until the ice sheet melts entirely.

“The question is,” Truffer said, “What is the point of no return?”

Greenland’s fate has strong implications for Alaska. According to Truffer, Greenland’s outlet glaciers behave much like Alaska’s tidewater glaciers, including Yakutat Glacier, just north of Glacier Bay. Yakutat, where Truffer will head after his April trip to Greenland, is the sight of an ongoing research project. Truffer and other UAF scientists, including Geophysical Institute professors Chris Larsen and Roman Motyka, have found Yakutat past the point of no return. The glacier is moving quickly, discharging much more ice through calving and melting than it can replace, and it’s retreating rapidly. Truffer says it’s a victim of the “runaway effect” of ice loss that can irrevocably doom a glacier.

Truffer’s upcoming research in Greenland will include Motyka, UAF graduate student David Podrasksy, and researchers from the University of New Hampshire and ETH Zurich. The group will work with oceanographers to measure the heat flux between the country’s icy landscape and the surrounding ocean. Through fieldwork at Kangiata Nunata Sermia, a glacier near Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, scientists will build off data recently published in “The Greenland Ice Sheet in a Changing Climate: Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost (SWIPA) 2009,” a report commissioned by the Arctic Council and presented at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. The report warned that further thinning and eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet could trigger sea level rise, warmer ocean temperatures, and severe economic hardship for the world’s largest island.

Truffer lent his expertise to the collective report, penning a chapter on ice discharge – the calving and melting of outlet glaciers along Greenland’s coast.

An updated version of the SWIPA report is due out later this year.

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“The Greenland Ice Sheet in a Changing Climate: Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost (SWIPA) 2009”:

Martin Truffer, GI associate professor, 907-474-5359, or
Marmian Grimes, UAF public information officer, at 907-474-7902 or