NYU Abu Dhabi Researchers Find Warm Ocean Water, Exacerbated by Warmer Air, Is Causing Rapid Melt of One of Greenland’s Largest Glaciers

August 5th, 2019. Researchers from NYU New York and Abu Dhabi identify an unexpected and large opening in the melange at the calving front of the Helheim Glacier. A temperature probe was deployed and results showed a uniform temperature of approximately 4 degree centigrade from top to bottom. Image credit: Denise Holland, NYU Abu Dhabi Center for Global Sea Level Change.

Press Release

A team of researchers from NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Global Sea Level Change, supported by the Office of Polar Programs of the USA National Science Foundation, have found that unusually warm ocean water is causing rapid melt at the Greenland outlet glacier Helheim, one of the largest in the region. For the first time, warm waters that originate in the tropics have been found at uniform depth, displacing the cold polar water at the Helheim calving front, causing an unusually high melt rate. Typically, ocean waters near the terminus of an outlet glacier like Helheim are at the freezing point and cause little melting.

Video and photos are available here. (Credit: Denise Holland,  NYU Abu Dhabi Center for Global Sea Level Change)

On August 5, 2019, researchers, led by Professor of Mathematics at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Principal Investigator for NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Sea Level Change David Holland, deployed a helicopter-borne ocean temperature probe into a pond-like opening, created by warm ocean waters, in the usually thick and frozen mélange in front of the glacier terminus. Normally, warm, salty waters from the tropics travel north with the Gulf Stream, where at Greenland they meet with cold, fresh water coming from the polar region. Because the tropical waters are so salty, they normally sink beneath the polar waters. But Holland and his team discovered that the temperature of the ocean water at the base of the glacier was a uniform plus four degrees centigrade from top to bottom at depth to 800 meters. The finding was also recently confirmed by NASA’s OMG (Oceans Melting Greenland) project.

August 5, 2019, NYU graduate student Aurora Basinski-Ferris prepares to deploy a temperature probe from a hovering helicopter into a melt-plume at the calving front of the Helheim Glacier. It was discovered that the water temperature was far above freezing from top to bottom. The presence of such warm water abutting to a calving front surprised researchers.

“This is unsustainable from the point of view of glacier mass balance as the warm waters are melting the glacier much faster than they can be replenished,” said Holland.

Surface melt drains through the ice sheet and flows under the glacier and into the ocean. Such fresh waters input at the calving front at depth have enormous buoyancy and want to reach the surface of the ocean at the calving front. In doing so, they draw the deep warm tropical water up to the surface, as well.

This is unsustainable from the point of view of glacier mass balance as the warm waters are melting the glacier much faster than they can be replenished.

Principal Investigator for NYU Abu Dhabi’s Center for Global Sea Level Change David Holland

All around Greenland, at depth, warm tropical waters can be found at many fjord locations. Their presence over time changes depending on the behavior of the Gulf Stream. Over the last two decades, the warm tropical waters at depth have been found in abundance. Greenland outlet glaciers like Helheim have been melting rapidly and retreating since the arrival of these warm waters.

“We are surprised to learn that increased surface glacier melt due to warming atmosphere can trigger increased ocean melting of the glacier,” added Holland. “Essentially, the warming air and warming ocean water are delivering a troubling ‘one-two punch’ that is rapidly accelerating glacier melt.”


About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly-selective liberal arts, engineering and science curriculum with a world center for advanced research and scholarship enabling its students to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from 120 nations and speak over 120 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.