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Greenland Meltwater Can Drain Faster Than Niagara Falls

April 17, 2008

Giant lakes of meltwater pooled on top of Greenland's ice sheets can suddenly drain to the bedrock, allowing the sheet to more easily slip forward, according to new research.

One lake that covered 2.2 square miles (5.6 square kilometers) and held 11.6 billion gallons (43.9 billion liters) of fresh water drained completely in about 90 minutes, scientists observed recently.

The maximum drainage rate was faster than the average flow rate over Niagara Falls.

"It's a lot of water flowing onto the ice pretty quickly," said study lead author Ian Joughin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The same phenomenon repeats itself over and over throughout the summer months in Greenland as long, warm days melt the ice on the surface. (See a Greenland map.)

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