Investigating the dynamics of Greenland's glacier-fjord systems

  • Benjamin Davison

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


Over the past two decades, Greenland’s tidewater glaciers have dramatically retreated, thinned and accelerated, contributing significantly to sea level rise. This change in glacier behaviour is thought to have been triggered by increasing atmospheric and ocean temperatures, and mass loss from Greenland’s tidewater glaciers is predicted to continue this century. Substantial research during this period of rapid glacier change has improved our understanding of Greenland’s glacier-fjord systems. However, many of the processes operating in these systems that ultimately control the response of tidewater glaciers to changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions are poorly understood. This thesis combines modelling and remote sensing to investigate two particularly poorly-understood components of glacier-fjord systems, with the ultimate aim of improving understanding of recent glacier behaviour and constraining the stability of the ice sheet in a changing climate.

The research presented in this thesis begins with an investigation into the dominant controls on the seasonal dynamics of contrasting tidewater glaciers draining the Greenland Ice Sheet. To do this, high resolution estimates of ice velocity were generated and compared with detailed observations and modelling of the principal controls on seasonal glacier flow, including terminus position, ice mélange presence or absence, ice sheet surface melting and runoff, and plume presence or absence. These data revealed characteristic seasonal and shorter-term changes in ice velocity at each of the study glaciers in more detail than was available from previous remote sensing studies. Of all the environmental controls examined, seasonal evolution of subglacial hydrology (as inferred from plume observations and modelling) was best able to explain the observed ice flow variations, despite differences in geometry and flow of the study glaciers. The inferred relationships between subglacial hydrology and ice dynamics were furthermore entirely consistent with process-understanding developed at land-terminating sectors of the ice sheet. This investigation provides a more detailed understanding of tidewater glacier subglacial hydrology and its interaction with ice dynamics than was previously available and suggests that interannual variations in meltwater supply may have limited influence on annually averaged ice velocity.

The thesis then shifts its attention from the glacier part of the system into the fjords, focusing on the interaction between icebergs, fjord circulation and fjord water properties. This focus on icebergs is motivated by recent research revealing that freshwater produced by iceberg melting constitutes an important component of fjord freshwater budgets, yet the impact of this freshwater on fjords was unknown. To investigate this, a new model for iceberg-ocean interaction is developed and incorporated into an ocean circulation model.

This new model is first applied to Sermilik Fjord — a large fjord in east Greenland that hosts Helheim Glacier, one of the largest tidewater glaciers draining the ice sheet — to further constrain iceberg freshwater production and to quantify the influence of iceberg melting on fjord circulation and water properties. These investigations reveal that iceberg freshwater flux increases with ice sheet runoff raised to the power ~0.1 and ranges from ~500-2500 m³ s⁻¹ during summer, with ~40% of that produced below the pycnocline. It is also shown that icebergs substantially modify the temperature and velocity structure of Sermilik Fjord, causing 1-5°C cooling in the upper ~100 m and invigorating fjord circulation, which in turn causes a 10-40% increase in oceanic heat flux towards Helheim Glacier. This research highlights the important role of icebergs in Greenland’s iceberg congested fjords and therefore the need to include them in future studies examining ice sheet – ocean interaction.

Having investigated the effect of icebergs on fjord circulation in a realistic setting, this thesis then characterises the effect of submarine iceberg melting on water properties near the ice sheet – ocean interface by applying the new model to a range of idealised scenarios. This near-glacier region is one which is crucial for constraining ocean-driven retreat of tidewater glaciers, but which is poorly-understood. The simulations show that icebergs are important modifiers of glacier-adjacent water properties, generally acting to reduce vertical variations in water temperature. The iceberg-induced temperature changes will generally increase submarine melt rates at mid-depth and decrease rates at the surface, with less pronounced effects at greater depth. This highlights another mechanism by which iceberg melting can affect ice sheet – ocean interaction and emphasises the need to account for iceberg-ocean interaction when simulating ocean-driven retreat of Greenland’s tidewater glaciers. In summary, this thesis has helped to provide a deeper understanding of two poorly-understood components of Greenland’s tidewater glacier-fjord systems: (i) interactions between subglacial hydrology and ice velocity, and; (ii) iceberg-ocean interaction. This research has enabled more precise interpretations of past glacier behaviour and can be used to inform model development that will help constrain future ice sheet mass loss in response to a changing climate.
Date of Award30 Nov 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorTom Cowton (Supervisor)

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