Glacier demise

Dr Alun Hubbard taking images of the Petermann Glacier.

Dr Alun Hubbard taking images of the Petermann Glacier.

02 September 2011

Dramatic images taken by Dr Alun Hubbard, a glaciologist at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, have revealed the extent to which the Petermann Glacier in Greenland has retreated in just two years.

Located in North-West Greenland, The Petermann Glacier is over 300km long and accounts for 6% of the area of the Greenland Ice Sheet. It terminates as a floating tongue of ice, measuring around 70km long by 20km wide, the largest of its kind in the northern hemisphere.

With joint support from the US National Science Foundation and the Natural Environment Research Council here in the UK, Dr Hubbard travelled by helicopter to the glacier to gather data from time lapse cameras and GPS sensors set up in July-August 2009 with the assistance of Greenpeace.

The sensors were set in anticipation of a large ice area detachment that eventually occurred by on 3 August, 2010.

Dr Hubbard flew from Qaanaaq, Greenland, the northernmost non-military permanent settlement in the world, to Petermann with the whole trip taking 5 days, from 24 to 29 July, 2011.

"Although I knew what to expect in terms of ice loss from satellite imagery, I was still completely unprepared for the gob-smacking scale of the breakup, which rendered me speechless," said Dr Hubbard on his return.

“It was incredible to see. This glacier is huge, 20km wide and over 600m thick & hemmed in by sheer cliffs that rise to 1000m on either side. It’s like looking into the Grand Canyon full of ice and coming back two years later to find it’s full of water.”

"What the breakup means in terms of inland ice acceleration and draw-down of the ice sheet remains to be seen, but will be revealed by the GPS data recovered, which we are now processing at Aberystwyth," he added.

The ‘detachment’ that took place on the 3rd of August 2010 led to the formation of an ice island measuring over 200 square kilometres.  Dr Hubbard believes that the cracks and rifts in what remains of the ice shelf means it is also likely to break up at some point in the near future.