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Large and irreversible future decline of the Greenland ice-sheet

Gregory, J., George, S. E. ORCID: and Smith, R. S. ORCID: (2020) Large and irreversible future decline of the Greenland ice-sheet. The Cryosphere, 14 (12). pp. 4299-4322. ISSN 1994-0424

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To link to this item DOI: 10.5194/tc-14-4299-2020


We have studied the evolution of the Greenland ice-sheet under a range of constant climates typical of those projected for the end of the present century, using a dynamical ice-sheet model (Glimmer) coupled to an atmospheric general circulation model (FAMOUS-ice AGCM). The ice-sheet surface mass balance (SMB) is simulated by the AGCM, including its dependence on altitude within AGCM gridboxes. Over millennia under a warmer climate, the ice-sheet reaches a new steady state, whose mass is correlated with the initial perturbation in SMB, and hence with the magnitude of global climate change imposed. For the largest global warming considered (about +5 K), the contribution to global-mean sea-level rise (GMSLR) is initially 2.7 mm yr−1, and the ice-sheet is eventually practically eliminated (giving over 7 m of GMSLR). For all RCP8.5 climates, final GMSLR exceeds 4 m. If recent climate were maintained, GMSLR would reach 1.5–2.5 m. Contrary to expectation from earlier work, we find no evidence for a threshold warming that divides scenarios in which the ice-sheet suffers little reduction from those which it is mostly lost. This is because the dominant effect is reduction of area, not reduction of surface altitude, and the geographical variation of SMB must be taken into account. The final steady state is achieved by withdrawal from the coast in some places, and a tendency for increasing SMB due to enhancement of cloudiness and snowfall over the remaining ice-sheet, through the effects of topographic change on atmospheric circulation. If late twentieth-century climate is restored, the ice-sheet will not regrow to its present extent, owing to such effects, once its mass has fallen below a threshold of about 4 m of sea-level equivalent. In that case, about 2 m of GMSLR would become irreversible. In order to avoid this outcome, anthropogenic climate change must be reversed before the ice-sheet has declined to the threshold mass, which would be reached in about 600 years at the highest rate of mass-loss within the likely range of the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Science > School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences > NCAS
ID Code:93698
Publisher:European Geosciences Union


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