Belfast academics uncover fresh insights into Greenland Ice Sheet

Belfast scientists have helped to uncover fresh insights into the Greenland Ice Sheet.

The team from Queen’s University Belfast, along with colleagues from the University of Manchester and the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, used reflection seismic surveys to image the structure of the Earth beneath the seafloor off the coast of north-west Greenland.

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, provides the first insight into millions of years of geological history of the north-western Greenland Ice Sheet.

It captured dramatic footage from the Ice Sheet – which recently featured on the Sir David Attenborough-narrated series Our Planet by Netflix – showing the scale and impact of millions of tonnes of ice collapsing into the sea.

Cross-section of different layers beneath the seafloor off north-west Greenland
Cross-section of different layers beneath the seafloor off north-west Greenland

The study charts the movement in the ice sheet, uncovering evidence on how on at least 11 occasions it became so large that it extended over 120km beyond its present-day margin during peak glaciation.

During intervening warmer periods, the ice sheet melted back to near the present-day coastline, resulting in significant global and regional sea-level rise.

Dr Andrew Newton of Queen’s, said: “This is an important result because it shows that over the last 2.7 million years the Greenland Ice Sheet has been highly dynamic, even when temperatures outside the ice ages were not as warm as today.

“This means that we can expect the ice sheet to directly respond to rising temperatures across the Arctic, which it is already doing.”

Professor Mads Huuse, from the University of Manchester, added: “By understanding how it changed in the past we may be able to get a better idea of how the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets might change in the future. The information generated from this work can be used to test the accuracy of numerical models that are used to project how ice sheets might respond to future climate change.

“The better these models are at recreating our observations of the past, the more confidence we can have in what they project for the future.

“Better climate models are essential for future planning and mitigation of the consequences of climate change, in particular the contribution to sea level rise from melting ice sheets.”