EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Ice slab thickening drives surface runoff expansion from the Greenland Ice Sheet’s percolation zone - and vice versa

Nicolas Jullien, Andrew Tedstone, and Horst Machguth
Nicolas Jullien et al.
  • University of Fribourg, Department of Geosciences, Fribourg, Switzerland (

On the Greenland Ice Sheet, the firn layer holds the potential to trap and refreeze surface meltwater within its pore space. Acting as a buffer, it prevents meltwater from leaving the ice sheet. However, several meter-thick ice slabs have developed in the firn during the last two decades, reducing subsurface permeability and inhibiting vertical meltwater percolation. Ice slabs are located above the long-term equilibrium line along the west, north and northeast coasts of the ice sheet. Through time, ice slabs have thickened while new ones have developed at higher elevations. Concomitantly, the area of the ice sheet drained by surface rivers has increased by 29% from 1985 to 2020. Nowadays, 5-10% of surface losses through meltwater runoff originates from these newly drained areas, which correspond strongly with where ice slabs are located.

Here, we demonstrate that the highest elevation which is drained by surface rivers – termed the maximum visible runoff limit – is controlled by the ice content in the subsurface firn. Using ice slab thickness derived from the accumulation radar and annual maximum visible limit retrievals from Landsat imagery from 2002 to 2018, we show that a sub-surface ice content threshold triggers the shift from a ‘firn deep percolation regime’ to a ‘firn runoff regime’. Although ice slabs act as an aquitard, vertical meltwater percolation can still take place where visible meltwater ponds at the surface. We show that once the firn runoff regime is underway, ice slabs are thicker in locations with active surface hydrology compared to locations where no meltwater is visible at the surface. Spatial heterogeneity in ice slab thickness is therefore predominantly controlled by surface hydrology features.

How to cite: Jullien, N., Tedstone, A., and Machguth, H.: Ice slab thickening drives surface runoff expansion from the Greenland Ice Sheet’s percolation zone - and vice versa, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-2250,, 2023.