skip to main content

Title: Controls on the Transport of Meltwater From the Southern Greenland Ice Sheet in the Labrador Sea

Coastal waters in the Labrador Sea are influenced by the seasonal input of meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet, which is predicted to more than double by the end of the century. Mechanisms controlling the offshore export of meltwater can have a significant effect on stratification and vertical stability in the Labrador Sea, being particularly important if the meltwater is transported toward the interior of the basin where winter convection occurs. Here we use a high‐resolution ocean model to show that coastal upwelling winds play a critical role transporting the meltwater offshore to about 150 km from the coast, where increased eddy activity and mean circulation can then transport the meltwater farther offshore. While meltwater discharged from West Greenland is either transported to Baffin Bay or circumnavigates the basin flowing mostly along isobaths, meltwater from East Greenland can reach the interior of the basin where it may influence stratification and winter convection whenever winds are anomalously upwelling favorable in late summer and early fall.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
DOI PREFIX: 10.1029
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 3551-3560
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    The Greenland ice sheet is melting at increasing rates. Changes in freshwater input to the Labrador Sea can influence coastal circulation and biological processes, stratification, and potentially winter convection. Many recent studies have investigated freshwater variability in the region based on model simulations or observations with limited spatial/temporal coverage. Here, we use in situ (1990–2019) and satellite (2011–2017) observations of surface salinity to characterize freshwater content and to identify transport pathways in the Labrador Sea over multiple years. Large freshening is observed in coastal waters off southwest Greenland from July to November. Interannual variability in freshening near the coast seems to be at least partially related to variability in meltwater input, although the sparseness of in situ data precludes a quantitative assessment. The seasonal westward transport of freshwater is enhanced between 60°–62°N and especially between 63°–64.8°N from August to October, with the low‐salinity waters circumnavigating the basin following the 1,000–2,000 m isobaths. That pathway coincides with intensifications in the component of the surface geostrophic flow that is directed offshore, highlighting the role played by the large‐scale circulation on the westward transport of the freshwater. Low‐salinity water can be transported toward the central Labrador Sea at synoptic scales, however, where it can potentially influence stratification. Consistent with previous modeling studies, offshore freshening is reduced in years with persistent downwelling‐favorable wind conditions. Despite limitations under cold water conditions, satellite observations of surface salinity compare well with in situ data suggesting that they can be useful for monitoring freshwater content in high latitudes.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Arctic‐origin and Greenland meltwaters circulate cyclonically in the boundary current system encircling the Labrador Sea. The ability of this freshwater to penetrate the interior basin has important consequences for dense water formation and the lower limb of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. However, the precise mechanisms by which the freshwater is transported offshore, and the magnitude of this flux, remain uncertain. Here, we investigate wind‐driven upwelling northwest of Cape Farewell using 4 years of high‐resolution data from the Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Program west Greenland mooring array, deployed from September 2014–2018, along with Argo, shipboard, and atmospheric reanalysis data. A total of 49 upwelling events were identified corresponding to enhanced northwesterly winds, followed by reduced along‐stream flow of the boundary current and anomalously dense water present on the outer shelf. The events occur during the development stage of forward Greenland tip jets. During the storms, a cross‐stream Ekman cell develops that transports freshwater offshore in the surface layer and warm, saline, Atlantic‐origin waters onshore at depth. The net fluxes of heat and freshwater for a representative storm are computed. Using a one‐dimensional mixing model, it is shown that the freshwater input resulting from the locus of winter storms could significantly limit the wintertime development of the mixed layer and hence the production of Labrador Sea Water in the southeastern part of the basin.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    The mechanisms that control the export of freshwater from the East Greenland Current, in both liquid and solid form, are explored using an idealized numerical model and scaling theory. A regional, coupled ocean–sea ice model is applied to a series of calculations in which key parameters are varied and the scaling theory is used to interpret the model results. The offshore ice flux, occurring in late winter, is driven primarily by internal stresses and is most sensitive to the thickness of sea ice on the shelf coming out of Fram Strait and the strength of alongshore winds over the shelf. The offshore liquid freshwater flux is achieved by eddy fluxes in late summer while there is an onshore liquid freshwater flux in winter due to the ice–ocean stress, resulting in only weak annual mean flux. The scaling theory identifies the key nondimensional parameters that control the behavior and reproduces the general parameter dependence found in the numerical model. Climate models predict that winds will increase and ice export from the Arctic will decrease in the future, both of which will lead to a decrease in the offshore flux of sea ice, while the influence on liquid freshwater may increase or decrease, depending on the relative changes in the onshore Ekman transport and offshore eddy fluxes. Additional processes that have not been considered here, such as more complex topography and synoptic wind events, may also contribute to cross-shelf exchange.

    Significance Statement

    The purpose of this study is to provide a basic understanding of what controls the flux of sea ice and low-salinity water from the East Greenland shelf into the interior of the Greenland and Iceland Seas. This is a potentially important process since it has been shown that sufficient freshening of the surface waters in the interior of the Nordic seas can inhibit deep convection and the associated air–sea heat flux and water mass transformation. A combination of idealized computer models and basic theory indicates that the fluxes of liquid and solid freshwater are controlled by different mechanisms and occur at different times of the year. Accurate representation in climate models will require representation of small-scale processes such as mesoscale eddies and gradients of ice thickness across the shelf.

    more » « less
  4. null (Ed.)
    Abstract The boundary current system in the Labrador Sea plays an integral role in modulating convection in the interior basin. Four years of mooring data from the eastern Labrador Sea reveal persistent mesoscale variability in the West Greenland boundary current. Between 2014 and 2018, 197 mid-depth intensified cyclones were identified that passed the array near the 2000 m isobath. In this study, we quantify these features and show that they are the downstream manifestation of Denmark Strait Overflow Water (DSOW) cyclones. A composite cyclone is constructed revealing an average radius of 9 km, maximum azimuthal speed of 24 cm/s, and a core propagation velocity of 27 cm/s. The core propagation velocity is significantly smaller than upstream near Denmark Strait, allowing them to trap more water. The cyclones transport a 200-m thick lens of dense water at the bottom of the water column, and increase the transport of DSOW in the West Greenland boundary current by 17% relative to the background flow. Only a portion of the features generated at Denmark Strait make it to the Labrador Sea, implying that the remainder are shed into the interior Irminger Sea, are retroflected at Cape Farewell, or dissipate. A synoptic shipboard survey east of Cape Farewell, conducted in summer 2020, captured two of these features which shed further light on their structure and timing. This is the first time DSOW cyclones have been observed in the Labrador Sea—a discovery that could have important implications for interior stratification. 
    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    The Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass at an accelerating pace, increasing its contribution to the freshwater input into the Nordic Seas and the subpolar North Atlantic. It has been proposed that this increased freshwater may impact the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation by affecting the stratification of the convective regions of the North Atlantic and Nordic Seas. Observations of the transformation and pathways of meltwater from the Greenland Ice Sheet on the continental shelf and in the gyre interior, however, are lacking. Here, we report on noble gas derived observations of submarine meltwater distribution and transports in the East and West Greenland Current Systems of southern Greenland and around Cape Farewell. In southeast Greenland, submarine meltwater is concentrated in the East Greenland Coastal Current core with maximum concentrations of 0.8%, thus significantly diluted relative to fjord observations. It is found in water with density ranges from 1,024 to 1027.2 kg m−3and salinity from 30.6 to 34, which extends as deep as 250 m and as far offshore as 60 km on the Greenland shelf. Submarine meltwater transport on the shelf averages 5.0 ± 1.6 mSv which, if representative of the mean annual transport, represents 60%–80% of the total solid ice discharge from East Greenland and suggests relatively little offshore export of meltwater east and upstream of Cape Farewell. The location of the meltwater transport maximum shifts toward the shelfbreak around Cape Farewell, positioning the meltwater for offshore flux in regions of known cross‐shelf exchange along the West Greenland coast.

    more » « less