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Scientists calculate the fate of the Greenland meltwater

Press release issued: 21 June 2016

Scientists have been able to track the flow of water created by Greenland's melting glaciers, revealing that it's currently having a less significant impact on the Gulf Stream than previously thought.

New model calculations, conducted by an international research team from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research based in Germany and the University of Bristol in the UK, suggest that a large fraction of the meltwater is effectively removed from the most sensitive areas by swift, narrow boundary currents, delaying the influence on the Gulf Stream.

The study is published today [20 June] in the international journal Nature Geoscience and has important implications for our understanding on how weather patterns may be influenced in the future.

Due to both enhanced summer melt and calving of outlet glaciers, more than 5,000 cubic kilometers of extra meltwater have been flowing from Greenland into the sea - equivalent to a quarter of the volume of the Baltic Sea.

The fate of this freshwater is of great importance for the system of ocean currents in the North Atlantic, which is governed by the density of the waters surrounding Greenland.

A reduction in the water density, especially in the Labrador Sea, due an increased influx of freshwater could ultimately lead to a weakening of the current system, including the Gulf Stream.

Using a newly developed computer model, the team of scientists simulated the pathways and effects of the additional meltwater in detail.

Professor Claus Böning, lead author of the study from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, said: "The effects of the melting Greenland glaciers initially remain smaller than expected, since a large part of the meltwater is effectively flushed out by fast, narrow currents along the coastline of North America. Thus changes in the critical, northern seas are delayed."

The computer model takes into account the regional differences in meltwater discharge trends and very fine details of the ocean currents. This fine detail allowed the researchers to assess more accurately the influences of the narrow boundary currents and small-scale eddies on the water exchange between the coastal shelf and the deep ocean.

The model calculations showed that more than half of the meltwater is transported southwards along the Canadian coast by the Labrador Current. Less than 20 per cent remains in the area between Greenland and Labrador which is critical for the Gulf Stream system.

The model suggests that the melting-induced impact on ocean salinity is, to date, only half as large as natural variations measured in the past decades.

However, the simulation also shows a progressive trend in the freshening of the Labrador Sea.

Professor Böning added: "If we project the rise in Greenland melting rates into the future, we expect first noticeable changes in the Labrador Sea in two or three decades. In this sense, the Gulf Stream may just get some breathing space."

Co-author Professor Jonathan Bamber, from the University of Bristol's School of Geographical Sciences, said: "Meltwater fluxes from Greenland have been accelerating in recent years and if, as seems likely, this trends continues we could see changes in ocean circulation even sooner."


'Emerging impact of Greenland meltwater on deepwater formation in the North Atlantic Ocean' by Claus W. Böning, Erik Behrens, Arne Biastoch, Klaus Getzlaff and Jonathan L. Bamber in Nature Geoscience.

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