Northeast Greenland, where the glacier is found, is of particular interest as numerical model predictions have suggested there is no significant mass loss for this sector, leading to a probable underestimation of future global sea-level rise from the region.
An international team of scientists, including Professor Jonathan Bamber from the University of Bristol, studied the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream which extends more than 600 km into the interior of the ice sheet: much further than any other in Greenland.
Professor Bamber said: "The Greenland ice sheet has contributed more than any other ice mass to sea level rise over the last two decades and has the potential, if it were completely melted, to raise global sea level by more than seven metres.
"About half of the increased contribution of the ice sheet is due to the speed up of glaciers in the south and northwest. Until recently, Northeast Greenland has been relatively stable. This new study shows that is no longer the case."
The researchers analysed a large collection of historical aerial photography, radar measurements and satellite data that measure the surface elevation, ice speed and bed elevation of the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream.
They found that the glacier started to speed up and lose mass around 2003 as a consequence of a localised increase in temperatures. Their results also showed that mass loss has continued up to the most recent observations in 2012 despite regional temperatures falling back to more typical values.
Professor Bamber said: "Most projections of the future behaviour of the ice sheet have no, or little, contribution from this part of Greenland but these new results suggest that this region is sensitive to changes in climate and has the potential to contribute significantly now and in the future."
'Sustained mass loss of the Northeast Greenland ice sheet triggered by regional warming' by Shfaqat A. Khan, Kurt H. Kjær, Michael Bevis, Jonathan L. Bamber, John Wahr, Kristian K. Kjeldsen, Anders A. Bjørk, Niels J. Korsgaard, Leigh A. Stearns, Michiel R. van den Broeke, Lin Liu, Nicolaj K. Larsen and Ioana S. Muresan in Nature Climate Change