As the climate gets warmer, the ever changing and enormous Greenland Ice Sheet will play a critical role in sea level rise, ocean circulation, global weather, and the ocean’s ability to absorb anthropogenic CO2. Many fundamental questions about the ice sheet remain unanswered despite its importance to science and society. Presently, it is still debated whether or not global warming will cause the Greenland Ice Sheet to reach a critical melting threshold, which will set off a melting feedback loop that will send the entire ice sheet to the ocean. If this were to happen, the world’s oceans would rise a full 23 feet, engulfing every major coastal city not to mention some low lying countries. While this prediction may seem dramatic considering the Greenland Ice Sheet has weathered several ice ages and their interims, we can be sure that the rapid climate change of today will have unforeseen and global consequences.
This is a story about a small group of scientists living and working outdoors on the tundra and ice of Greenland. Our job is to deploy every available technology at our disposal to understand the evolution of the ice sheet through the melt season, and then to communicate our results and interpretations. We will establish a base camp at the edge of a large land terminating outlet glacier of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and take daily measurements of meltwater discharging from its base. In June and July, a helicopter will ferry a small team to the top of the ice sheet. Here, they will sample and add chemical tracers to the large supraglacial lakes that dot the top of the ice sheet every summer. As melting progresses and the ice sheet contracts and expands, crevasses split open beneath these lakes draining them in a matter of hours. These supraglacial lake drainage events are significant as they transport heat to the base of the ice sheet while lubricating the bedrock. It is hypothesized that this causes the ice sheet to accelerate its march to the ocean. After several weeks in one location, this ice sheet team will be ferried by helicopter higher up the two-mile thick ice sheet where they will spend several more weeks sampling before being moved higher yet again. Some of us, myself included, will spend close to four months in the field so as to capture the seasonal changes of the melting ice. We hope our work will elucidate some of the complex dynamics of the Greenland Ice Sheet and perhaps lead to hypotheses, or educated guesses, of the ice sheet’s future.
This expedition will bring together scientists from the University of Bristol, the University of Edinburgh, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.