Arctic Glacier and Ice Sheet Change

Background of the project

Glaciers and ice sheets hold ∼75% of fresh water existing on the earth. Because of the large volume and unique properties of snow and ice, glaciers and ice sheets play key roles in the global environment. For example, changes in the ice mass control sea-level rise, high-albedo surface affects heat balance on the earth, meltwater discharge gives impact on the ocean circulation, and ice motion excavates gigantic scale landscapes.

Arctic glaciers and ice sheet (Figure 1) are rapidly losing mass under the influence of pronounced warming in the Arctic region. Such changes are clearly observable in the Greenland ice sheet, as well as glaciers and ice caps in Alaska, Svalbard, Iceland, Canadian and Russian Arctic regions. Recession of ice and increase in meltwater discharge are affecting global and Arctic environments.

Figure 1. Arctic glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet are covering lands and ice is draining into the ocean.

Goal of the project

Our research project aims to quantify glacier and ice sheet changes in the Arctic, and better understand the mechanism of recent ice mass loss for better projection in the future. We also investigate the influence of the glacier and ice sheet change on Arctic natural environments, such as impact on ocean environments and marine ecosystems.

To this end, we perform field and satellite observations, sampling and analyses of snow/ice and sea water, and numerical modeling on Arctic glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet. Our focus is the region nearby Qaanaaq, one of the northern most villages in northwestern Greenland (Figure 2). Qaanaaq is inhabited by 600 people and they are living on a Greenlandic traditional way of life, such as hunting animals and fishing using dog sledges on sea ice. These activities are now affected by drastically changing natural environments. For example, use of a dog sledge is limited in a shorter season because of declining sea ice. Changes are expected in marine resources under the influence of warming ocean. The goal of our project is to provide the indigenous people in Qaanaaq useful information for their activity. Accurate data on changing glaciers and the ocean should help them to adjust their life to the changing environment.

Figure 2. Location of Qaanaaq in northwestern Greenland.
Still in early July, the coast of Qaanaaq village is covered with sea ice.

Previous research

Under the framework of GRENE Arctic Climate Change Research Project (, we have been studying glaciers and ice sheet in northwestern Greenland since 2012. We found that all marine-terminating outlet glaciers in the Qaanaaq region have been retreating sice 2000. Intensive field work was performed in Bowdoin Glacier, which revealed rapid retreat of the glacier since 2008 accompanied by ice speed acceleration and thinning near the terminus (Figure 3) (ref. 1). We suspect atmospheric/ocean warming as a trigger of the recent recession of the glaciers. To better understand the response of the glacier dynamics to the ocean and atmospheric perturbations, we collaborated with ETH-Zurich in 2014 for hot water drilling on Bowdoin Glacier. Subglacial and englacial observations using drilled boreholes provide crucial data to interpret recent glacier changes and project in the future. Mass loss is clearly observed also on ice caps in the region (Figure 2). In addition to the warming climate, darkening of ice surface caused by biological activity accelerates melting and thinning of the ice caps (ref. 2).

Figure 3. (left) Bowdoin Glacier, a marine-terminating glacier of the Greenland ice sheet located at ∼20 km north of Qaanaaq. (middle) Rapid retreat of Bowdoin Glacier since 2008. (right) Ice caps near Qaanaaq are thinning at a rate >1 m a-1.

Research plan

We participate in an integrated Arctic research program ArCS (Arctic Challenge for Sustainability Project), which is established in 2015 under the funding from MEXT Japan. Hokkaido University leads this program with NIPR and JAMSTEC to advance our knowledge on rapidly changing Arctic environment and enhance Japanese contribution in the national community. As one of the research projects in ArCS, we expand our research activities in northwestern Greenland under interdisciplinary collaborations in various fields of natural and social sciences. We also strengthen international and domestic collaborations by utilizing newly established Hokkaido University Arctic Research Center as a platform.

Figure 4. The diagram illustrates the research targets of the project. We study Arctic glacier and ice sheet change, and its impact on natural environments and human activities in the Arctic.


  1. Sugiyama, S., D. Sakakibara, S. Tsutaki, M. Maruyama and T. Sawagaki. 2015. Glacier dynamics near the calving front of Bowdoin Glacier, northwestern Greenland. Journal of Glaciology, 61(226), 223-232.
  2. Sugiyama, S., D. Sakakibara, S. Matsuno, S. Yamaguchi, S. Matoba and T. Aoki. 2014. Initial field observations on Qaanaaq Ice Cap in northwestern Greenland. Annals of Glaciology, 55(66), 25-33.

Project members

Shin Sugiyama, ILTS
Yasushi Fukamachi, ILTS
Sumito Matoba, ILTS
Yoshinori Iizuka, ILTS
Ralf Greve, ILTS
Masato Furuyua, Hokkaido University
Takanobu Sawagaki, Hosei University


NIPR, Kitami Institute of Technology, Meteorological Research Institute, Chiba University, ETH-Zurich, University of Calgary, University of Copenhagen


Graduate Students

We welcome graduate students with interests on glaciers and ice sheets. Your research fields are Greenland, Antarctica, Patagonia, and wherever frozen on the Earth.


Shin Sugiyama, Associate Professor, Glacier and Ice Sheet Research Group, ILTS
Room 310 in ILTS, TEL: 011-706-7441, sugishin[at]

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