Thermal tracking of meltwater retention in Greenland's accumulation area

Neil F. Humphrey, Joel T. Harper, W. Tad Pfeffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

121 Scopus citations


Poorly understood processes controlling retention of meltwater in snow and firn have important implications for Greenland Ice Sheet's mass balance and flow dynamics. Here we present results from a 3 year (2007-2009) field campaign studying firn thermal profiles and density structure along an 85 km transect of the percolation zone of west Greenland. We installed one or two thermistor strings at 14 study sites, each string having 32 sensors spaced between 0 and 10 m depth. Data from our network of over 500 sensors were collected at 15-60 min intervals for 1-2 years, thereby recording the thermal signature of meltwater infiltration and refreezing during annual melt cycles. We document three types of heating of firn related to different mechanisms of meltwater motion and freezing, including heterogeneous breakthrough events, wetting front advance, and year-round heating from freezing of residual deep pore water. Vertically infiltrating meltwater commonly penetrates through cold firn accumulated over decades, even where ice layers are present at the previous summer surface and where ice layer thickness exceeds several decimeters. The offset between the mean annual air temperature and the 10 m firn temperature reveals the elevation dependency of meltwater retention along our transect. The firn is > 10C warmer than the mean annual air temperature at the region where meltwater runoff initiates. During 2007-2009, runoff was limited to elevations lower than ∼1500 m with no sharp "runoff limit"; rather, the ratio of retention to runoff transitioned from all retention to all runoff across a ∼20 km wide zone.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberF01010
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2012


Dive into the research topics of 'Thermal tracking of meltwater retention in Greenland's accumulation area'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this