Climate-Driven Change in Ice-Free Areas of Greenland – Northington

KAIRN (Kangerlussuaq International Research Network) 2nd Annual Meeting; Acadia National Park, Maine, 4–7 05 2016

The Arctic is experiencing some of the most intense effects of climate change, with southwest Greenland seeing the most rapid warming (about 3°C during the past 7 years). Although loss of ice from the island is an important area of research, much less discussed is the way that the ecosystems around the ice-free edges of Greenland have responded to warming. These ecosystems have undergone recent rapid physical and ecological changes.

In the Kangerlussuaq region, meltwater from the Greenland Ice Sheet drains into Søndre Strømfjørd via the Watson River but does not contribute to freshwater lake levels.Last May, the Kangerlussuaq International Research Network (KAIRN) group met to examine the role of the Greenland Ice Sheet as a regional driver of change and its indirect impact on local ecosystem and hydrologic processes. Participants used data sets from their collective work and a conceptual model outlining the connectivity of periglacial, terrestrial, and freshwater systems in Greenland to help develop key questions for future research and data collection.

Southwest Greenland encompasses the largest expanse of ice-free landscape on the island and is the warmest and driest area in Greenland during the summer growing season, which lasts less than 3 months. In the Kangerlussuaq region, meltwater from the Greenland Ice Sheet drains into Søndre Strømfjørd via the Watson River but does not contribute to freshwater lake levels. Meeting participants discussed how the general lack of groundwater connection between terrestrial and aquatic areas results in hydrologically constrained systems. Presenters fleshed out prevailing hypotheses that sediment and nutrients are transferred among glacial, terrestrial, and freshwater systems by wind-blown dust.

A variety of ecosystems coexist southeast of Kangerlussuaq at the margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet.This aerial view shows the varied ecosystems in southwest Greenland southeast of Kangerlussuaq at the ice sheet margin. An emerging nunatak (exposed rocky ridge) is visible in the background, near the center of the photo. Multiple lakes are embedded in the landscape, but these ecosystems are not connected with the outflow of the ice sheet at the left. Credit: Robert Northington

Attendees felt that southwest Greenland presents a unique opportunity to broadly investigate climate change in the Arctic while examining how ice sheet dynamics alter (or amplify) pan-Arctic changes in a variety of local systems. However, although there has been a great deal of research over various timescales on individual components of the southwest Greenland system (freshwater lakes, terrestrial ecosystems, and ice sheet dynamics), meeting participants also noted that there is no cohesive framework on which to model change across the region.

Discussions at the workshop included potential response variables and timescales for analysis, such as how to measure contemporary changes in a way that complements responses determined from the paleorecord of lake sediments. Meeting participants agreed on several goals. First, scientists will work to determine data available for key responses to climate change in Greenland, including carbon cycle changes, altered biodiversity, and material transport from the ice sheet. Second, researchers will attempt to find a common metric to link paleoecological and contemporary data sets (e.g., air temperature and regional drivers such as the Greenland Blocking Index). Third, scientists will produce collaborative manuscripts that address these responses over multiple temporal and spatial scales.

This meeting followed an initial workshop in 2015 in the United Kingdom, where the KAIRN group developed the conceptual model used in 2016. The KAIRN group represents four different countries (Norway, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and includes glaciologists, ecologists, geochemists, climatologists, and paleoecologists. The group was formed to address the unprecedented change in Greenland and related challenges. The next KAIRN meeting will occur in 05 2017 in Sogndal, Norway.

We thank Jasmine Saros and N. John Anderson for organizing the KAIRN meetings and wish to acknowledge the United Kingdom’s Natural Environmental Research Council and the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute for their funding.

—Robert M. Northington, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, Orono; email:; Joanna E. Bullard, Department of Geography, Loughborough University, Loughborough, U.K.; and Jon Telling, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, Bristol, U.K.

Citation: Eos, 97, Northington, R. M., J. E. Bullard, and J. Telling (2016), Climate-driven change in ice-free areas of Greenland, doi:10.1029/2016EO060283. Published on 05 2016-ober-10.