Greenland’s Ice Sheet Releases 400,000 Metric Tons of Phosphorus Yearly, Study Says

February 3, 2016 Updated: February 3, 2016

Greenland’s melting ice sheet is adding enormous amounts of phosphorus to the oceans, which could simulate the growth of marine life, a new study found, 

Jon Hawkings of the University of Bristol and his colleagues gathered water samples from two glaciers during 2012 and 2013, and found much higher phosphorus levels than what was previously reported. It’s estimated that Greenland’s glaciers could release 440,000 U.S. tons of phosphorus per year.

“We find annual phosphorus input (for all of Greenland’s outlet glaciers) are at least equal to some of the world’s largest rivers, such as the Mississippi and the Amazon,” Hawkings said in a statement.

It’s not clear how much phosphorus makes it into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but it could contribute to more plankton growth, which would in turn affect marine life higher up the food chain. Much of it could end up buried in Greenland’s fjords instead of dissolved in the ocean. 


Glacial meltwater absorbs phosphorus as it’s moving through the ice blocks. The element is released when glaciers move against rocks, pulverizing them into mineral-rich powders. 

“Glaciers are very, very good at crushing up rock,” said Hawkings.

The total concentration of phosphorus found in the larger Greenland glaciers was 10 times as high as that found in the Arctic glaciers, and understanding how much of the element makes its way into the ocean could help scientists better understand the Atlantic’s ecosystem.