Recent advances in our understanding of the role of meltwater in the Greenland ice sheet system

P. W. Nienow, A. J. Sole, Donald Alexander Slater, T. R. Cowton

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose of the review:  This review discusses the role that meltwater plays within the Greenland ice sheet system. The ice sheet’s hydrology is important because it affects mass balance through its impact on meltwater runoff processes and ice dynamics. The review considers recent advances in our understanding of the storage and routing of water through the supraglacial, englacial, and subglacial components of the system and their implications for the ice sheet

Recent findings:   There have been dramatic increases in surface meltwater generation and runoff since the early 1990s, both due to increased air temperatures and decreasing surface albedo. Processes in the subglacial drainage system have similarities to valley glaciers and in a warming climate, the efficiency of meltwater routing to the ice sheet margin is likely to increase. The behaviour of the subglacial drainage system appears to limit the impact of increased surface melt on annual rates of ice motion, in sections of the ice sheet that terminate on land, while the large volumes of meltwater routed subglacially deliver significant volumes of sediment and nutrients to downstream ecosystems.

Summary:  Considerable advances have been made recently in our understanding of Greenland ice sheet hydrology and its wider influences. Nevertheless, critical gaps persist both in our understanding of hydrology-dynamics coupling, notably at tidewater glaciers, and in runoff processes which ensure that projecting Greenland’s future mass balance remains challenging.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)330-344
JournalCurrent Climate Change Reports
Issue number4
Early online date7 Nov 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • Greenland ice sheet
  • Ice sheet hydrology
  • Ice dynamics
  • Tidewater glaciers
  • Sediment and solute fluxes
  • Ice sheet erosion


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