May 26 (UPI) -- New research describes a massive wave of ice loss on Greenland's west coast in 2012. Scientists say the melt, dubbed a solitary wave, represents a new mode of glacial mass loss.
During the record hot summer of 2012, scientists measured a mass loss of 6.7 gigatons in Greenland's Rink Glacier -- a total too large to be explained by traditional modes of melting.
"You could literally be standing there and you would not see any indication of the wave," Eric Larour, a researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release. "You would not see cracks or other unique surface features."
A single sensor in the Greenland GPS Network registered the horizontal movement of ice -- a steady flow of melting mass moving like a wave across the glacier.
Researchers found a similar wave pattern in GPS data collected near Greenland's Rink Glacier in 2010.
"We know for sure that the triggering mechanism was the surface melting of snow and ice, but we do not fully understand the complex array of processes that generate solitary waves," said JPL scientist Surendra Adhikari.
In the hot summers of 2010 and 2012, researchers say Greenland's interior basin was loaded with water in the form of snow and ice. As it melted, it carved channels through and under Greenland's coastal glaciers. These channels allowed more massive amounts of water and ice to flow towards the coast. The meltwater also lubricated the glacier-bedrock interface and encouraged a faster flow.
Researchers suggest the new mode of glacial mass loss could be the new normal. Scientists described their discovery in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
"Intense melting such as we saw in 2010 and 2012 is without precedent, but it represents the kind of behavior that we might expect in the future in a warming climate," said Erik Ivins of JPL. "We're seeing an evolving system."