Scientists at St Andrews have brought accurate predictions of rising sea levels a step closer.
St Andrews University led a study into the shrinking Greenland ice sheet.
Boffins from the Fife town, who collaborated with academics from Edinburgh, Sheffield, Cambridge and California San Diego, said their findings would play an “important role in predicting the response of the ice sheet to future climate warming.”
They examined 10 large glaciers in east Greenland from 1993 to 2012 using satellite imagery to track the retreat of ice.
Tom Cowton from the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at St Andrews said: “While we cannot predict the detailed retreat of individual glaciers, our findings enable us to approximate likely retreat rates based on air and ocean warming scenarios.
“This information can then be fed into the large scale ice sheet models that are used to predict sea level rise.”
The Greenland Ice Sheet contains enough water to raise sea levels by around seven metres if it melts completely.
Greenland is ringed by fast-flowing outlet glaciers, which drain from the slow-flowing interior of the ice sheet.
When large outlet glaciers reach the coast, they discharge vast quantities of icebergs into the surrounding ocean.
A Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland researcher said climate change meant more icebergs were breaking off from glaciers.
Last week, a huge iceberg came perilously close to the village of Innarsuit in Greenland.
Some villagers had to be evacuated over fears the four mile wide iceberg could calve and cause a tsunami.
Predicting how quickly the ice sheet will shrink has proved difficult in the past.
The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that while the retreat of glaciers could appear erratic and unpredictable when studied over just a few years, a clear relationship between the rate of retreat and climatic warming emerged when observed over longer timescales.
Supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, the study discovered that variations in ocean temperature help to explain key discrepancies in glacier retreat along Greenland’s east coast.
In southeast Greenland, major glaciers retreated by several kilometres as regional air temperatures warmed rapidly between 2000 and 2005.
Glaciers in the northeast remained much more stable despite air temperatures warming by a similar amount.
The team attributed this disparity to the presence of very cold ocean waters along the coast of northeast Greenland. Warmer ocean waters melted the submerged parts of marine-terminating glaciers, encouraging undermined blocks to tumble into the sea as icebergs. Colder waters suppress this process, which may then make the glaciers more resilient to the warming air temperatures.