Greenland’s Ice Layer Captured Cracking in Real-Time

A team of scientists reported on Monday that they utilized a drone to analyze the swift cracking and draining of a lake positioned on the Greenland ice layer, an occurrence that may become more common due to the impacts the climate change has on the planet.

The ice layer is usually about a kilometer (0.62 miles) thick, and during summer, it is regular for a part of the surface to liquefy and create thousands of lakes. The majority of these lakes have a lifespan of just a few hours, developing wide openings at the base of the ice, around a kilometer deep. Melted water from the surface streams keeps gushing them down for the remaining melt season, forming some of Earth’s most massive waterfalls.

Using a Drone to Conduct Research

This activity has been incredibly challenging to analyze directly, but a team of glaciologists from the Scott Polar Institute at the University of Cambridge was able to do it in July of last year when they arrived at the Store Glacier, located in northwest Greenland.

A few days proceeding their arrival, over the period of five hours, two-thirds of the lakes or about 5 million liters of water vanished from the surface through a crack. Aerial imaging spotted by the drone from before and after depicted a dark blue oval decrease into a smaller, thinner, and lighter blue oval.

Tom Chudley, a co-author of the research that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ​said that what drones are able to do enabled them to perform some high-quality calculations in areas that are not safe to access by foot.

By using an onboard GPS, the scientists were able to geo-locate and assemble together thousands of images that were then utilized to create an accurate 3D reconstruction of the ice layer’s surface.

Increasing the Glacier’s Movement

A glacier is a stream of ice that travels slowly, helped by its own weight, toward the ocean. When it arrived at the sea, it detaches into icebergs, which make up approximately 40 percent of Greenland’s contribution to rising ocean levels.

Aerial imaging spotted by the drone from before and after depicted a dark blue oval decrease into a smaller, thinner, and lighter blue oval. [Image: Tom Chudley, AFP/John SAEKI, AFP]
The Store Glacier moves at a speed of 600 meters per year. The group of scientists discovered that the abrupt outflow of the lake conditionally enhanced its speed from two to five meters per day. The water that vanished under the ice worked as a lubricant, and even more shocking is the fact that this body of water raised the glacier’s height by 55 centimeters, according to the team.

“That’s a kilometer of ice lifted up half a meter, so you can imagine the kind of pressures that were involved,” said Chudley, a doctoral student at Cambridge, and co-author of the paper.

The team’s research explains in great detail the shaping of these large cracks, which, in turn, develop water beds that increase the glacier’s activity.

“As we see climate change progressing in Greenland, we see more lakes, and we’re seeing them get larger, and we’re seeing them higher up into the colder section of the ice sheet, and we can see that some of these lakes are beginning to drain,” explained Chudley.

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