What on Earth is going on in Greenland?
If you’ve been following recent developments in the climate change sphere, you have likely been inundated with headlines about unprecedented melting of the ice sheets in Greenland. Should we be panicking? Is it really that bad? Well, here’s the lowdown.
A new study has emerged, published in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment, by researchers at the Ohio State University, that determined Greenland’s ice sheet has melted to a point of no return… and even the world’s collective efforts to slow global warming can not stop it from fully disintegrating. The study used four decades of satellite data to measure changes in Greenland's ice sheet.
“The ice sheet is now in this new dynamic state, where even if we went back to a climate that was more like what we had 20 or 30 years ago, we would still be pretty quickly losing mass," Ian Howat, co-author of the study and a professor at Ohio State University, said.
What’s an ice sheet and why do they matter?
An ice sheet is a mass of glacial land ice extending more than 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles). The two ice sheets on Earth today cover most of Greenland and Antarctica. During the last ice age, ice sheets also covered much of North America and Scandinavia.
Together, the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets contain more than 99% of the freshwater ice on Earth. The Greenland Ice Sheet extends about 1.7 million square km (656,000 square miles), covering most of the island of Greenland, three times the size of Texas.
Their importance lies in the enormous quantities of frozen water that they contain. If the Greenland Ice Sheet melted, scientists estimate that sea level would rise about 6 meters (20 feet). If the Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, sea level would rise by about 60 meters (200 feet).
Apart from holding gigantic amounts of freshwater, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are also so immense that they also influence weather and climate. Large high-altitude plateaus on the ice caps alter storm tracks and create cold downslope winds close to the ice surface. In addition, the layers of ice blanketing Greenland and Antarctica contain a unique record of Earth's climate history.
So, what’s the latest situation in Greenland?
Whilst the Greenland ice sheet managed to withstand the heating pressures brought by the first 150 years of the industrial age, with enough snow piling up in the winter seasons to balance out the losses of ice in spring and summer melting, according to this study - that all changed 20 years ago.
In 2000, Greenland’s glaciers began melting at a faster rate, and the acceleration has increased significantly between 2000 and 2005. In 2003, the average yearly loss was 259 billion tons of ice, when NASA satellites first allowed for accurate measuring of the gravity of the ice sheets.
Fast forward to 2019; high temperatures saw Greenland lose enough ice to cover the US state of California in more than four feet of water. That’s 532 trillion liters of water - equivalent to 212.8 million olympic-sized swimming pools over the course of 2019, seven for each second of the year.
Lastly, and perhaps the most ominous aspect of Greenland ice sheet’s demise is that it contributes more than 280 billion metric tons of melting ice into the ocean each year, making it the greatest single contributor to global sea level rise, according to Michalea King, the lead author of the study and researcher at Ohio State University. It is coastal states like Florida in the United States, as well as low-lying island nations, that are particularly vulnerable to global sea-level rise. Just 3 feet of sea level rise could put large areas of coastline underwater. 40% of the US population resides in vulnerable coastal areas.
So, the important question... how long will Greenland’s ice sheets last?
When it’s all said and done, it could take 10,000 years for all of Greenland’s ice to melt. However, factors such as increasingly warm temperatures, jolts to the climate system like the glacier acceleration (that began in the early 2000s), along with the effects of ice-darkening algae and black carbon, could speed up this process by thousands of years.
More realistically, the Fourth National Climate Assessment estimates sea levels will have risen 1 to 4 feet by 2100.
Can this melting be reversed?
Tipping points in nature are complicated, and it is important not to over-simplify them. It seems that only a long series of cold years could stabilize the ice and slow down melting. A huge increase in winter snowfall, which would make up for spring and summer losses, could build up the ice sheet too. Current models do not suggest this will happen. A number of researchers offer their insights on this topic here.
Oh dear, what can we do?
It is easy to panic, or feel paralyzed by this news, fall into a hole of despair, or experience “Oh-dearism”. British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis produced a short film that describes the social phenomenon, something he has observed in people who are exposed to horrible news day in and day out (sound familiar?), from civil wars, poverty, child slavery, famine, natural disasters, and the list goes on.
Jim Selman, a recognized leader and authority in the field of organizational transformation and culture change, describes it as the “hand-wringing posture we take after seeing or learning about some particularly abhorrent or disgusting aspect of the human condition or what is going on in the world. At the end of the spectacle we shake our heads and say "oh dear" or "Ain't it awful?" but continue on with life as usual. This inevitably leads to resignation; giving up on possibility on a personal level - and turns us into what can be described as a spectator society.”
We asked Capture’s resident climate advisor Jake (as we often do when feeling overwhelmed ourselves!) about advice to give on the action we can take, and he said “The quicker we reduce emissions and decarbonise, the greater the chances we have of avoiding complete climate collapse.” If you have begun your journey towards planet-friendly living, whether it’s plant-based eating, driving and flying less, and offsetting any travel, then you’re on the right path.
Really, it’s not so much what you are doing when starting out on your planet-friendly journey, but more the fact that you are doing something. Taking personal action, speaking to friends, family, and colleagues about more climate-positive behaviours, and raising awareness around climate change are all useful, even if you don’t happen to see the direct effects of it.
To get daily satellite images and information about the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, check out the National Snow and Ice Data Center website. Any questions or comments, feel free to join the discussions via our Instagram channel @thecaptureapp or say hi to the team via email at firstname.lastname@example.org