LAWRENCE — A hidden aquifer the size of Ireland recently discovered within the ice layers of a glacier in Greenland could hold the key to better understanding how annual melting at the ice surface could affect sea level rise.
The Dec. 22 issue of the prestigious scientific journal Nature details the existence of a significant amount of melt water stored in old compacted snow, known as firn. Radar technology developed by researchers at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) at the University of Kansas played a key role in identifying and confirming the previously undetected pool of water within the ice sheet. Richard Forster, professor of geography at the University of Utah, led the research project. Four KU researchers were cited as contributing authors.
Discovery of the aquifer could provide more details on how much melt water from firn-covered regions is partitioned into runoff and flows into the sea and how much is left behind in the ice sheet to refreeze. This, in turn, provides a bigger-picture look at how much annual surface heating could contribute to sea level rise.
The Nature article details how in April 2011, researchers stumbled upon the existence of vast amounts of water pooled below the glacial surface. The discovery happened during routine work drilling cores in the ice to measure the thicknesses of annually accumulating snow layers.
Forster and his colleagues were surprised to hit water 10 meters deep on their first drill, so they packed their equipment and moved a few miles in search of a spot that was solid ice. After hitting water a second time, they turned to thousands of radar images of the ice from the surface to the bed gathered by CReSIS. These data helped determine the size of the subsurface layer of water, which ranges from five to 50 meters deep across an area of nearly 850 kilometers of southern Greenland.
The article also makes the case for further research and additional measurements of Greenland’s unexplored interior regions.
KU’s contributing authors are Prasad Gogineni, distinguished professor of electrical engineering and computer science and CReSIS director; Carl Leuschen, associate professor of electrical engineering and CReSIS deputy director; John Paden, associate scientist, and Cameron Lewis, graduate research assistant.
Nature was first published in 1869 and is one of the most cited interdisciplinary scientific journals in the world.
CReSIS was established by the National Science Foundation in 2005 with the mission of developing new technologies and computer models to measure and predict the response of sea level change to the mass balance of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Data collected with CReSIS technologies have helped uncover a massive canyon buried under miles of ice in Greenland and provided an updated, more detailed topographic map of Antarctica under its blanket of ice.