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Greenland's 'Supraglacial' Lakes Could Trigger Future Ice Loss

Dec 15, 2014 02:50 PM EST

Previous predictions of Greenland ice loss may have been greatly underestimated, as new research shows the region's "supraglacial" lakes could trigger faster ice melt in the future.

Supraglacial lakes are bodies of water that form on the ice sheet surface from melted snow and ice. According to the new study, these lakes will migrate farther inland over the next 50 years, potentially causing drastic changes in Greenland's ice sheet flow and contributing to rising sea levels.

"When you pour pancake batter into a pan, if it rushes quickly to the edges of the pan, you end up with a thin pancake. It's similar to what happens with ice sheets: the faster it flows, the thinner it will be," lead researcher Dr. Amber Leeson explained in a news release.

"Supraglacial lakes can increase the speed at which the ice sheet melts and flows, and our research shows that by 2060 the area of Greenland covered by them will double," she added.

Until now, supraglacial lakes formed around the coastline of Greenland, in a band that is roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) wide. But since the 1970s, this band has crept about 56 kilometers (35 miles) further inland.

And according to satellite observations from the European Space Agency and climate model data, by 2060 supraglacial lakes will double in size, spreading much farther inland - up to 110 kilometers (68 miles).

"Water draining from lakes farther inland could lubricate the ice more effectively, causing it to speed up," Leeson explained.

It's no secret that Greenland will contribute to global sea level rise, with the region expected to contribute an extra 22 centimeters by the year 2100. But researchers hadn't before taken into account the changes in supraglacial lakes.

"Our findings will help to improve the next generation of ice sheet models, so that we can have greater confidence in projections of future sea-level rise," co-author Andrew Shepherd added.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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