Decades of exploration in Greenland has recently culminated in the extraordinary discovery of a massive hidden reservoir that contains over 100 billion tons of water beneath the ice sheet. This snow aquifer, a slushy layer beneath the ice in which water is stored between particles of ice, covers more than 27,000 square miles. The discovery could help scientists learn more about Greenland’s annual surface melt that contributes to rising sea levels across the globe.
Greenland aerial view / Shutterstock
Every year, Greenland’s melting snow and ice adds 0.03 inches (0.7 mm) of water to global sea levels and the newly discovered hidden reservoir contains enough water in the snow aquifer to raise global sea level by 0.015 inches (0.4 millimeters) on its own. “We thought we had an understanding of how things work in Greenland, but here is this entire storage system of water we didn’t realize was there,” said Richard Forster, lead study author and a glaciologist at the University of Utah.
No one knows how old the water in the aquifer is, and whether it stays trapped in the snow or makes its way out to the ocean. The final destination of Greenland’s meltwater is key to understanding how the ice sheet ebbs and flows, and the speed at which it melts. “The existence of this rather flavorless natural snow cone has many implications for the future of the ice sheet, some that may make the ice go away faster and others that help keep the ice a little longer,” said Richard Alley, a glaciologist at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the study. “We would like to understand these implications better so we can help reduce the uncertainties about future changes.”
While this discovery doesn’t give any definitive answers, it adds a new piece to the puzzle of rising sea levels and how fast the remaining ice on Earth will melt. The research team will return to southeast Greenland in the coming years in order to generate a clearer picture – even “just seeing how old it is would answer a lot of questions,” said Forster.
Lead image by University of Utah