Research

Greenland ice melts four times faster in a decade

Greenland ice melts four times faster in a decade

A team of scientists is warning that the double whammy of a naturally recurring weather pattern and rising temperatures is triggering dramatic melting on the Greenland ice sheet - a problem the researchers liken to recent global coral bleaching events, which have been fuelled by the one-two punch of El Niño and climate change.

Glaciers here are responsible for pushing enormous iceberg-sized chunks of ice into the Atlantic Ocean, which eventually float away and melt.

The study was first published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and used data from NASA's gravity recovery and climate experiment (GRACE), as well as from Global Positioning System stations on Greenland. Sea level began to rise sharply after the end of the Little Ice Age and with the onset of the industrial revolution in the 19th century.

The largest sustained ice loss came from southwest Greenland, a region previously not seen as a crucial actor in rising sea levels as it is mostly devoid of large glaciers. But scientists have found that the largest ice loss in the decade from 2003 actually occurred in the southwest region of the island, which is largely glacier-free.

"In terms of rate of transfer of ice to oceans, both mechanisms are important", said lead author Michael Bevis, a geophysicist at The Ohio State University.

"We knew we had one big problem with increasing rates of ice discharge by some large outlet glaciers".

Bevis: Greenland has enough ice to raise sea level by seven meters if all the ice melted.

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"Global warming has brought summertime temperatures in a significant portion of Greenland close to the melting point", Bevis explained, "and the North Atlantic Oscillation has provided the extra push that caused large areas of ice to melt". Once you hit that tipping point, the only question is: "How severe does it get?" stated Michael Bevis, the leading author of the Greenland study that observed alarming meltdown in "safe" Greenland ice sheets.

What's more, if the atmosphere continues to warm, this degree of melting will start to happen on its own, without the help of the cycle, he added.

He said the findings may have "serious implications" for major USA cities such as NY and Miami, as well as island nations particularly vulnerable to flooding. Now, the new study revealed that Southwestern Greenland region is also melting at a faster rate than the researchers expected. Then the NAO went briefly and dramatically positive, coinciding with the ice loss pause, before dipping negative again.

Between year 2002 and 2016 Greenland lost about 280 gigatonnes of ice per year.

In any case, since the southwest part of the ice sheet is without glaciers, the melting must be happening by means of another mechanism: A warmer atmosphere would melt the ice more inland, and the resulting water would keep running off into the ocean. "If we lose ice mass from Greenland or Antarctica and seas rise, that will be felt globally, not just in the Arctic or the Antarctic", also said Eric Klein from the University of Alaska.

The culprit appears to be climate change, which combines with a natural air-current phenomenon - the North Atlantic Oscillation - to pummel Greenland with warm air.

The rate at which the ice is melting across the island was far from steady.


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