A surprising discovery in Greenland has sent scientists back to reassess how they calculate rising sea levels from melting ice.
The melting of the Greenland ice sheet has not affected sea levels as much as expected yet because a lot of the resulting water has soaked into densely packed snow, storing it temporarily.
Researchers estimate that an area of snow cover the size of Tasmania (about 70,000 km2) is saturated in water from the melting ice.
The melt water is stored in old compacted snow called firn, according to a study in Nature Geoscience.
This hidden aquifer delays the journey of melt water from the ice sheet towards the ocean, where it contributes to sea-level rise.
Richard Forster of the University of Utah and a team drilled through snow layers in the southern Greenland ice sheet in the spring of 2011 to measure the thicknesses of snow layers.
Surprisingly, they found liquid water that survived the winter. They used ground and airborne radar to trace the extent of the water layer across a widespread region of southern Greenland.
An article in Nature Geoscience says this previously unknown aquifer may be partially responsible for the disparity between simulated mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet and satellite studies.
The large mass of liquid water also represents a heat sink that could be playing a role in Greenland’s interaction with the climate system.
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