Research News

New Greenland Ice Sheet study highlights urgency for more glaciology research

Greenland icebergs in Disko Bay.

The midnight sun casts a golden glow on an iceberg and its reflection in Disko Bay, Greenland. Much of Greenland’s annual mass loss occurs through calving of icebergs such as this. Photo: Ian Joughin, University of Washington

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published December 10, 2019

headshot of Beata Csatho.
“The importance of ice dynamics emphasizes the need of continuing improvements of numerical ice sheet models, in particular coupled ice-ocean-atmosphere-solid earth models, as well as the need for modeling and data intercomparison studies.”
Beata Csatho, professor and chair
Department of Geology

A new study on the Greenland Ice Sheet shows that it’s shrinking at an alarming rate, and highlights the urgency of conducting new research to improve our understanding of how, exactly, the ice sheet is losing mass, says UB expert Beata Csatho.

Csatho, professor and chair of the Department of Geology in the College of Arts and Sciences, was part of a large international team that carried out the project.

The study, which was published in Nature today, provides the most complete picture to date of how the Greenland Ice Sheet has changed in recent decades. Among the findings: Researchers estimate that Greenland has lost enough ice since 1992 to raise global sea levels by about 10.6 millimeters, and that ice loss is happening seven times faster than in the 1990s.

The results come from a major climate assessment known as the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE). Led by Professor Andrew Shepherd at the University of Leeds and researcher Erik Ivins at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the project was supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA.

Csatho is one of 89 scientists from 50 international organizations who combined data from 26 separate surveys to compute changes in the mass of Greenland’s ice sheet between 1992 and 2018.

Csatho says the new study is alarming as it shows that ice loss has been accelerating at a rapid pace. The research also underscores how much scientists still have to learn about the ice sheet’s behavior, she says.

“The new study provides a robust partition of mass losses due to surface processes and changes in ice dynamics, primarily due to outlet glacier speed-up,” Csatho says. “In 1992-2018, about 47% of mass loss is due to ice dynamics.

“The large contribution of ice dynamics is contrary to studies that expected decreasing contributions from ice dynamics and a dominance of mass loss caused by surface processes, such as increased melting,” she says. “The importance of ice dynamics emphasizes the need of continuing improvements of numerical ice sheet models, in particular coupled ice-ocean-atmosphere-solid earth models, as well as the need for modeling and data intercomparison studies.”

Research that combines ice sheet modeling with measurements of the ice sheet’s behavior in modern and prehistoric times is a focus of the climate change group in UB’s Department of Geology, she says.

Csatho and her colleagues in the department leverage a number of tools to learn about the Greenland Ice Sheet, including numerical modeling, satellite and aerial measurements, and field work to investigate the size and behavior of the ice sheet and glaciers in prehistoric times.