'A surprise:' One of Earth's fastest-shrinking glaciers is suddenly growing again

A NASA study revealed a glacier that was one of the fastest-shrinking ice and snow masses on Earth is making an unexpected comeback.

Greenland's glacier, named Jakobshavn, was retreating roughly 1.8 miles and thinning nearly 130 feet annually around 2012; however, it started growing again at about the same rate in the past two years, according to NASA's Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) project.

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The calving front of Jakobshavn Glacier, center. This 2016 photo provided by NASA shows patches of bare land at the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland. The major Greenland glacier that was one of the fastest shrinking ice and snow masses on Earth is growing again, a NASA study finds. The Jakobshavn glacier around 2012 was retreating about 1.8 miles (3 kilometers) and thinning nearly 130 feet (almost 40 meters) annually. But the last two years it started growing again at about the same rate, according to a study released on Monday, March 25, 2019, in Nature Geoscience. Study authors and outside scientists think this is temporary. (NASA/OIB/John Sonntag)

NASA research found that the glacier is now flowing more slowly, thickening, and advancing toward the ocean instead of retreating farther inland.

The glacier is still losing more ice to the ocean than it gains from snow accumulation, but at a slower rate now.

The study's lead author, Ala Khazendar, a NASA glaciologist on the OMG project, said a natural cyclical cooling of North Atlantic waters likely caused the glacier to reverse course.

The slowdown started because an ocean current that brings water to the glacier's ocean face grew much cooler in 2016. According to NASA, water temperatures in the vicinity of the glacier are now lower than they have been since the mid-1980s.

The cold water is due to a climate pattern called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), which causes the northern Atlantic Ocean to switch slowly between warm and cold every five to 20 years.

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An iceberg floats in a fjord near the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Principal Investigator Josh Willis looks out at the Greenland ice sheet from inside of a NASA Gulfstream III flying above Greenland to measure loss to the country's ice sheet as part of the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Glacial flow is seen out the window of a NASA Gulfstream III flight to support the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission above the east coast of Greenland, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Safety officer Brian Rougeux works with student Febin Magar to assemble a radar dome while working in a science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Meltwater pools are seen on top of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Radar Engineer, Ron Muellerschoen, monitors data collection inside a NASA Gulfstream III flying above Greenland to measure loss to the country's ice sheet as part of the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A glacial terminus is seen from the window during a NASA flight to support the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission above the east coast of Greenland, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Student Febin Magar watches as leftover wood burns in a research camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Safety officer Brian Rougeux uses a drill to install antennas for scientific instruments that will be left on top of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Oceanographer David Holland works with student Febin Magar to inspect a seismograph in their science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Tabular icebergs float in the Sermilik Fjord after a large calving event at the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 23, 2018. This portion between the glacier front and the open ocean is known as the "melange" and is filled with ice, snow and icebergs packed together on their way to a fjord and later the ocean. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An iceberg floats in a fjord near the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 18, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Meltwater pools are seen on top of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Oceanographer David Holland (C) eats with Denise Holland (L), safety officer Brian Rougeux and student Febin Magar (R) in their science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Safety officer Brian Rougeux carries a piece of a radar dome while working in a science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Oceanographer David Holland repairs a broken GPS module at his research camp above the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Glacial ice is seen from the window during a NASA flight to support the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission above the east coast of Greenland, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Sunshine lights up the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An aerial photograph of Oceanographer David Holland's science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Airplane Mechanic, David Fuller (L), works with a local worker to move a NASA Gulfstream III during a pre-flight inspection before a flight to support the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Airplane Mechanic, David Fuller, inspects a NASA Gulfstream III during a pre-flight inspection before a flight to support the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Radar Engineer Ron Muellerschoen (L), Radar Engineer Tim Miller (C) and Pilot in Command Tom Parent discuss issues with an autopilot system while flying inside a NASA Gulfstream III above Greenland to measure loss to the country's ice sheet as part of the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An iceberg floats in a fjord near the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An iceberg floats in a fjord near the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An iceberg floats in a fjord near the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
An iceberg floats in a fjord near the town of Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Pilot in Command Tom Parent inspects the exterior of a NASA Gulfstream III during a pre-flight inspection of the aircraft before a flight to support the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) research mission, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Student Febin Magar watches as safety officer Brian Rougeux burns leftover wood while working in a science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Safety officer Brian Rougeux unfastens equipment to inspect it while working in a science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Safety officer Brian Rougeux works to build a semi-permanent structure in a science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A large crevasse forms near the calving front of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Denise Holland prepares a meal at a science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Safety officer Brian Rougeux works to build a semi-permanent structure in a science camp on the side of the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Tabular icebergs float in the Sermilik Fjord after a large calving event at the Helheim glacier near Tasiilaq, Greenland, June 23, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson SEARCH "JACKSON GREENLAND" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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"The Jakobshavn's glacier located on Greenland's west central coast comprises approximately 7 percent of Greenland's land mass. Persistent cold this past winter is typical of a persistent positive NAO which has dominated most of the time this winter," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Jack Boston said.

Jason Box, an ice and climate scientist for the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, told The Associated Press that Jakobshavn is “arguably the most important Greenland glacier because it discharges the most ice in the northern hemisphere. For all of Greenland, it is king.” Box, who was not involved with the NASA study, added that this turnaround staged by Jakobshavn is "kind of a surprise."

The climate pattern settled into a new phase recently, cooling the Atlantic in general. This change was accompanied by some extra cooling of the waters along Greenland's southwest coast in 2016, which flowed up the west coast, eventually reaching Jakobshavn.

According to Boston, the positive aspect of the NAO means a lack of atmospheric blocking in the north Atlantic.

"Greenland has been on the eastern side of the 'polar vortex' located over eastern Canada the bulk of this winter leading to below-normal temperatures over Greenland," Boston said.

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Boston said the negative side of the NAO is that there is a persistent above-normal temperature over Greenland.

"This has not been the case this winter. It is interesting to note that glaciers in eastern and southern Greenland continue to recede while the glaciers in western Greenland showed the growth and refreezing," Boston said.

When the climate pattern flips again, Jakobshavn will most likely start accelerating and thinning again.

Tom Wagner, NASA Headquarters program scientist for the cryosphere, who was not involved in the study, said, "The OMG mission deployed new technologies that allowed us to observe a natural experiment, much as we would do in a laboratory, where variations in ocean temperatures were used to control the flow of a glacier. Their findings — especially about how quickly the ice responds — will be important to projecting sea level rise in both the near and distant future."

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