Research ArticleCLIMATOLOGY

Surface-atmosphere decoupling limits accumulation at Summit, Greenland

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Science Advances  29 Apr 2016:
Vol. 2, no. 4, e1501704
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501704


Despite rapid melting in the coastal regions of the Greenland Ice Sheet, a significant area (~40%) of the ice sheet rarely experiences surface melting. In these regions, the controls on annual accumulation are poorly constrained owing to surface conditions (for example, surface clouds, blowing snow, and surface inversions), which render moisture flux estimates from myriad approaches (that is, eddy covariance, remote sensing, and direct observations) highly uncertain. Accumulation is partially determined by the temperature dependence of saturation vapor pressure, which influences the maximum humidity of air parcels reaching the ice sheet interior. However, independent proxies for surface temperature and accumulation from ice cores show that the response of accumulation to temperature is variable and not generally consistent with a purely thermodynamic control. Using three years of stable water vapor isotope profiles from a high altitude site on the Greenland Ice Sheet, we show that as the boundary layer becomes increasingly stable, a decoupling between the ice sheet and atmosphere occurs. The limited interaction between the ice sheet surface and free tropospheric air reduces the capacity for surface condensation to achieve the rate set by the humidity of the air parcels reaching interior Greenland. The isolation of the surface also acts to recycle sublimated moisture by recondensing it onto fog particles, which returns the moisture back to the surface through gravitational settling. The observations highlight a unique mechanism by which ice sheet mass is conserved, which has implications for understanding both past and future changes in accumulation rate and the isotopic signal in ice cores from Greenland.

  • Greenland Ice sheet
  • polar climate
  • water isotopes
  • atmospheric boundary layer
  • ice-atmosphere interaction
  • climate change

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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