Strong summer atmospheric rivers trigger Greenland ice sheet melt through spatially varying surface energy balance and cloud regimes

Kyle S. Mattingly, Thomas L. Mote, Xavier Fettweis, Dirk van As, Kristof van Tricht, Stef Lhermitte, Claire Pettersen, Robert S. Fausto

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35 Citations (Scopus)


Mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) has accelerated over the past two decades, coincident with rapid Arctic warming and increasing moisture transport over Greenland by atmospheric rivers (ARs). Summer ARs affecting western Greenland trigger GrIS melt events, but the physical mechanisms through which ARs induce melt are not well understood. This study elucidates the coupled surface-atmosphere processes by which ARs force GrIS melt through analysis of the surface energy balance (SEB), cloud properties, and local- to synoptic-scale atmospheric conditions during strong summer AR events affecting western Greenland. ARs are identified in MERRA-2 reanalysis (1980-2017) and classified by integrated water vapor transport (IVT) intensity. SEB, cloud, and atmospheric data from regional climate model, observational, reanalysis, and satellite-based datasets are used to analyze melt-inducing physical processes during strong,.90th percentile ''AR901'' events. Near AR ''landfall,'' AR901 days feature increased cloud cover that reduces net shortwave radiation and increases net longwave radiation. As these oppositely signed radiative anomalies partly cancel during AR901 events, increased melt energy in the ablation zone is primarily provided by turbulent heat fluxes, particularly sensible heat flux. These turbulent heat fluxes are driven by enhanced barrier winds generated by a stronger synoptic pressure gradient combined with an enhanced local temperature contrast between cool over-ice air and the anomalously warm surrounding atmosphere. During AR901 events in northwest Greenland, anomalous melt is forced remotely through a clear-sky foehn regime produced by downslope flow in eastern Greenland.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6809-6832
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2020

Programme Area

  • Programme Area 5: Nature and Climate


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