Vast store of water lies under Greenland
A vast store of water equivalent in area to Ireland lies beneath Greenland’s ice sheet, and may provide answers to one of the biggest riddles about climate change, scientists said on Sunday.
In 2011, US scientists crossed the southern Greenland ice sheet on an expedition to drill ice cores, a benchmark of annual snowfall.
They were stunned when they drilled into a layer of compressed snow called firn, for instead of piercing an icy sponge at a depth of 10 meters as expected, they encountered water and ice granules instead.
They carried out another drilling a few kilometers away, with the same result when they reached the firn layer at 25 meters.
Seeking an answer to the water mystery, a NASA plane with terrain-mapping radar was brought in to fly over the zone, as well as ground-penetrating radar towed by a snowmobile.
Radar returned bright reflections pointing to the presence of a vast reservoir of water beneath the ice.
Extending down Greenland’s southeastern flank, the hidden water covers 70,000 square kilometers and is found at depths beneath the ice that range from five to 50 meters.
The store is believed to hold melted snow from the previous summer, according to a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience.
It works similarly to an aquifer below the ground, which is a spongy rock that holds water in its air spaces.
In this case, the air spaces in the firn are occupied by water, resulting in something akin to the crushed-ice soft drink called a snow cone.
“The surprising fact is the juice in this snow cone never freezes, even in the dark Greenland winter,” said Rick Forster, a geography professor at the University of Utah, who led the mission.
“Large amounts of snow fall on the surface later in the summer and quickly insulate the water from the sub-freezing air temperatures above, allowing the water to persist all year long.”
The secret store appears to have been around for some time and was not initiated by manmade global warming, the scientists believe.
They say it could provide insights into the fate of the ice sheet, a key question in climate science.
A mighty slab of ice averaging 1,500 meters in thickness, Greenland is experiencing unprecedented melt as global warming accelerates.
In 2012, the ice sheet lost a record 250 cubic kilometers in volume, making it the biggest single contributor to the rise in world sea levels, Forster said.
If the ice sheet melts completely, it will increase sea levels by about seven meters.
This is a doomsday scenario that most scientists discount, but even the loss of a large fraction would still drown vulnerable coastal cities.
The discovery of a year-round sub- glacial reservoir sweeps away computer simulations that have tried to calculate this runoff.
The simulations usually have water flowing into rivers, lakes or sub-glacial streams that eventually run into the sea, or else running into the ice sheet through crevasses and becoming frozen.
The next step is to determine whether the reservoir helps or hinders the survival of Greenland’s ice sheet.
“It might conserve the meltwater flow and thus help slow down the effects of climate change,” Forster said.
“But it may also have the opposite effect, providing lubrication to moving glaciers and exacerbating ice velocity and (iceberg) calving, increasing the mass of ice loss to the global ocean.”