explanation and premonition of complete surface melting over Greenland

Box et al. (2012) end the article’s abstract with an explanation of the atmospheric dynamics and thermodynamics that led to the extreme year 2012 Greenland melting …and a premonition:

“Abnormally strong anticyclonic circulation, associated with a persistent summer North Atlantic Oscillation extreme since 2007 enabled three amplifying mechanisms to maximize the albedo feedback: (1) increased warm (south) air advection along the western ice sheet increased surface sensible heating that in turn enhanced snow grain metamorphic rates, further reducing albedo; (2) increased surface downward shortwave flux, leading to more surface heating and further albedo reduction; and (3) reduced snowfall rates sustained low albedo, maximizing surface solar heating, progressively lowering albedo over multiple years. The summer net infrared and solar radiation for the high elevation accumulation area approached positive values during this period. Thus, it is reasonable to expect 100% melt area over the ice sheet within another similar decade of warming.

Further, to the paper’s conclusions:

“Accumulation area radiation budget shift [2000-2011]

In the 12 years beginning in 2000, the reduced albedo combined with a significant increase in downward solar irradiance yielded an accumulation area net radiation increase from -0.9 to -0.2 Wm^2. Another similar decade may be sufficient to shift the average summer accumulation area radiation budget from negative to positive, resulting in an abrupt ice sheet melt area increase. The ice sheet mass budget deficit is therefore expected to become more sensitive to increasing temperatures via the ice albedo feedback, especially in negative summer NAO index conditions [which did persist in 2012]. Future work should therefore be concerned with understanding potential tipping points in ice sheet melt regime as the average radiation budget shifts from negative (cooling) to positive (heating), as it seems the threshold of this has just been reached. It will take some time, perhaps years for the cold content of the firn to be sufficiently eroded to allow continuous summer melting and an ice sheet surface characterized by 100% melt extent. Further warming would only hasten the amplification of melting that the albedo feedback permits.

Work Cited

  • Box, J. E., Fettweis, X., Stroeve, J. C., Tedesco, M., Hall, D. K., and Steffen, K.: Greenland ice sheet albedo feedback: thermodynamics and atmospheric drivers, The Cryosphere, 6, 821-839, doi:10.5194/tc-6-821-2012, 2012. open access

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