IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Greenland Ice Sheet

The present SMB of Greenland is a net accumulation estimated as 0.6 mm yr–1 of sea level equivalent from a compilation of studies (Church et al., 2001) and 0.47 mm yr–1 for 1988 to 2004 (Box et al., 2006). In a steady state, the net accumulation would be balanced by calving of icebergs. General Circulation Models suggest that ablation increases more rapidly than accumulation with temperature (van de Wal et al., 2001; Gregory and Huybrechts, 2006), so warming will tend to reduce the SMB, as has been observed in recent years (see Section 4.6.3), and is projected for the 21st century (Section Sufficient warming will reduce the SMB to zero. This gives a threshold for the long-term viability of the ice sheet because negative SMB means that the ice sheet must contract even if ice discharge has ceased owing to retreat from the coast. If a warmer climate is maintained, the ice sheet will eventually be eliminated, except perhaps for remnant glaciers in the mountains, raising sea level by about 7 m (see Table 4.1). Huybrechts et al. (1991) evaluated the threshold as 2.7°C of seasonally and geographically uniform warming over Greenland relative to a steady state (i.e. pre-industrial temperature). Gregory et al. (2004a) examine the probability of this threshold being reached under various CO2 stabilisation scenarios for 450 to 1000 ppm using TAR projections, and find that it was exceeded in 34 out of 35 combinations of AOGCM and CO2 concentration considering seasonally uniform warming, and 24 out of 35 considering summer warming and using an upper bound on the threshold.

Assuming the warming to be uniform underestimates the threshold, because warming is projected by GCMs to be weaker in the ablation area and in summer, when ablation occurs. Using geographical and seasonal patterns of simulated temperature change derived from a combination of four high-resolution AGCM simulations and 18 AR4 AOGCMs raises the threshold to 3.2°C to 6.2°C in annual- and area-average warming in Greenland, and 1.9°C to 4.6°C in the global average (Gregory and Huybrechts, 2006), relative to pre-industrial temperatures. This is likely to be reached by 2100 under the SRES A1B scenario, for instance (Figure 10.29). These results are supported by evidence from the last interglacial, when the temperature in Greenland was 3°C to 5°C warmer than today and the ice sheet survived, but may have been smaller by 2 to 4 m in sea level equivalent (including contributions from arctic ice caps, see Section 6.4.3). However, a lower threshold of 1°C (Hansen, 2005) in global warming above present-day temperatures has also been suggested, on the basis that global mean (rather than Greenland) temperatures during previous interglacials exceeded today’s temperatures by no more than that.

For stabilisation in 2100 with SRES A1B atmospheric composition, Greenland would initially contribute 0.3 to 2.1 mm yr–1 to sea level (Table 10.7). The greater the warming, the faster the loss of mass. Ablation would be further enhanced by the lowering of the surface, which is not included in the calculations in Table 10.7. To include this and other climate feedbacks in calculating long-term rates of sea level rise requires coupling an ice sheet model to a climate model. Ridley et al. (2005) couple the Greenland Ice Sheet model of Huybrechts and De Wolde (1999) to the UKMO-HadCM3 AOGCM. Under constant 4 × CO2, the sea level contribution is 5.5 mm yr–1 over the first 300 years and declines as the ice sheet contracts; after 1 kyr only about 40% of the original volume remains and after 3 kyr only 4% (Figure 10.38). The rate of deglaciation would increase if ice flow accelerated, as in recent years (Section Basal lubrication due to surface melt water might cause such an effect (see Section The best estimate of Parizek and Alley (2004) is that this could add an extra 0.15 to 0.40 m to sea level by 2500, compared with 0.4 to 3.2 m calculated by Huybrechts and De Wolde (1999) without this effect. The processes whereby melt water might penetrate through subfreezing ice to the bed are unclear and only conceptual models exist at present (Alley et al., 2005b).

Under pre-industrial or present-day atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the climate of Greenland would be much warmer without the ice sheet, because of lower surface altitude and albedo, so it is possible that Greenland deglaciation and the resulting sea level rise would be irreversible. Toniazzo et al. (2004) find that snow does not accumulate anywhere on an ice-free Greenland with pre-industrial atmospheric CO2, whereas Lunt et al. (2004) obtain a substantial regenerated ice sheet in east and central Greenland using a higher-resolution model.

Figure 10.38

Figure 10.38. Evolution of Greenland surface elevation and ice sheet volume versus time in the experiment of Ridley et al. (2005) with the UKMO-HadCM3 AOGCM coupled to the Greenland Ice Sheet model of Huybrechts and De Wolde (1999) under a climate of constant quadrupled pre-industrial atmospheric CO2.