Satellite observation of winter season liquid meltwater storage within Greenland’s firn aquifer: 1992-2014

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Julie Z Miller, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, United States, Richard R Forster, Univ Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, United States, David G Long, Brigham Young Univ, Provo, UT, United States, Theodore A Scambos, Univ Colorado, Boulder, CO, United States, Peter Kuipers Munneke, Utrecht University, Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, Utrecht, Netherlands and Michiel R van den Broeke, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
It has long been known that the microwave response is sensitive to near-surface (~5 m) liquid meltwater within ice sheets. Since the beginning of the satellite-era, active and passive microwave instruments have frequently been used to detect what have been assumed to be melt processes from space. Microwave melt models are typically threshold-based binary detections – liquid meltwater is either present or it is not. The recent discovery of substantial quantities (~140±20 Gt) of liquid meltwater stored within Greenland’s extensive firn aquifer highlights evolving knowledge of melt and retention processes within the upper layers (< ~35 m) of the percolation facies of the Greenland ice sheet, as well as limitations in current microwave melt models. Firn aquifers form as the result of high melt rates that saturate snow and firn layers with liquid meltwater during the melt season, and high snow accumulation rates that thermally insulates this saturated layer during the winter season - allowing it to be stored in liquid form at decreasing depths as refreeze propagates from the ice sheet surface downward. While subsurface liquid meltwater is known to influence the microwave response, current microwave melt models do not distinguish between the introduction of liquid meltwater controlled by melt processes and the continued presence of liquid meltwater controlled by the retention process. This research exploits the multidecadal (1992-2014) satellite-borne active (ERS, ASCAT) and passive (AMSR-E) microwave climate record to provide the first long-term, spatiotemporally continuous, observational evidence of winter season meltwater storage within Greenland’s firn aquifer. We use multi-frequency backscatter and brightness temperature image time series reconstructed at enhanced resolution (~12 km), and a microwave signature algorithm derived from a coupled two-layer radiative transfer model, to characterize both melt and retention processes using simple, time-dependent, parameters that are calibrated using thousands of airborne (IceBridge O1B accumulation radar) observations. Comparisons are made between calibrated microwave aquifer model results and aquifer simulations generated by the regional climate model RACMO2.