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Greenland Ice Sheet Retreat Since the Little Ice Age


Late 20th century and 21st century satellite imagery of the perimeter of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) provide high resolution observations of the ice sheet margins. Examining changes in ice margin positions over time yield measurements of GrIS area change and rates of margin retreat. However, longer records of ice sheet margin change are needed to establish more accurate predictions of the ice sheet's future response to global conditions. In this study, the trimzone, the area of deglaciated terrain along the ice sheet edge that lacks mature vegetation cover, is used as a marker of the maximum extent of the ice from its most recent major advance during the Little Ice Age. We compile recently acquired Landsat ETM+ scenes covering the perimeter of the GrIS on which we map area loss on land-, lake-, and marine-terminating margins. We measure an area loss of 13,327 ± 830 km2, which corresponds to 0.8% shrinkage of the ice sheet. This equates to an averaged horizontal retreat of 363 ± 69 m across the entire GrIS margin. Mapping the areas exposed since the Little Ice Age maximum, circa 1900 C.E., yields a century-scale rate of change. On average the ice sheet lost an area of 120 ± 16 km2/yr, or retreated at a rate of 3.3 ± 0.7 m/yr since the LIA maximum.

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