Donald Trump wants it, Denmark owns it, and Earth needs it. Greenland, one of the largest ice sheets on the planet, is melting about seven times faster today than it was in the 1990s, new research from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) says.
The leap in numbers is alarming. According to the reports, in the 1990s, Greenland lost 25 billion tons of ice per year. Now, however, the amount is 234 billion tons for the same time period. In total, it means that Greenland has lost more than 4 trillion tons of ice since 1992. In order to better understand the problem scale, one should imagine that we would have the same impact on sea levels if instead of 4 trillion tons of melted ice, we would add the water from 120 million Olympic-size swimming pools to the ocean every year, for 26 years.
The results caused by the melting are becoming more and more visible each year. Greenland is slowly but surely becoming the main causer of the rising sea levels. In the 1990s, Greenland accounted for only 5% of a global sea-level rise whereas now it has become the world`s leader. “Its contribution is now greater than that of all glaciers in the world outside of the major ice sheets and exceeds the contributions of all of Antarctica,” explains Dr. Flowers, a glaciologist and professor at Simon Fraser University. It should be remembered, though, that Antarctica is about ten times bigger than Greenland. Unfortunately, the reports show that these percentages are not the end, and the numbers are only going to get higher every year.
“There were a couple of very warm years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, that led to a lot of melt. Overall the atmosphere over Greenland has been warmer over the past two decades than earlier,” says Jason Briner, a Geology professor at State University of New York at Buffalo.
Last summer, however, was one of the hottest in Greenland, making 2019 the biggest melt year in the island`s history. This heavy melting in 2019 is also significant because it was the first year when changes in glaciers affected the northern and northeastern parts of Greenland.
So, why is it happening?
In our world, everything is connected. It is especially true when it comes to climate change. The air temperature increases and provokes the melting of glaciers. When they finally melt, the planet does not have enough ice cover to cool down itself, and it becomes hotter and hotter each year. Greenland, unfortunately, is located in the epicenter of this vicious circle, losing its glaciers for two main reasons.
Half of the loss is connected to warmer air, which led to rapid glaciers` flow and iceberg calving. Greenland has been shedding ice into the ocean so fast that it does not have time to be replaced by snow. The accelerating mass loss is also due to a few key areas of the ice-sheet flowing faster into the ocean and therefore discharging even more icebergs. “The gap between annual snowfall and annual melt is narrowing, with snowfall no longer able to offset the total amount of ice lost through melting plus iceberg discharge,” says Dr. Flowers.
Another reason for big ice loss is warmer ocean temperatures around Greenland. When the warmer water comes in contact with glaciers, it makes them melt even more swiftly. But a new study shows that there is another threat that started to attack Greenland`s ice from below. The scientists found an underwater current around two kilometers wide coming into direct contact with the inner layer of glaciers.
The warmer waters around and below Greenland led to the formation of some ice tongues. An ice tongue is a long narrow strip of ice descending from the ground into the water. The biggest ice tongue in Greenland is now more than 60 kilometers long.
How does it affect sea levels?
Greenland has now become the biggest driver of sea-level rise on Earth melting seven times faster than in 1992. The island`s ice sheet is so large that if it suddenly melts, the sea levels will rise by 7.4 m.
The studies show that we are to expect 17 cm of global sea-level rise by 2100. It means that mankind should be prepared for the worst-case scenario at the end of the century if Greenland continues to melt at the same rate.
Statistics, unfortunately, leave much to be desired with each year becoming only warmer. Scientists have estimated that Greenland lost about 268 bn tons of ice between 2002 and 2019. It is only less than half of what it lost last summer. Los Angeles county with 10 million residents, for example, consumes only 1 bn tons of water per year.
However, it was August 2019 that inflicted the greatest damage to the island`s ice sheet. According to the reports, during the biggest summer melt, Greenland shed more than 11 billion tons of ice into the ocean, which is comparable to 4.4 million Olympic swimming pools. It implies that melted ice from Greenland last summer was enough to raise global sea levels by 2.2 millimeters in 2 months only.
As global warming takes its toll, scientists from all over the world are trying to make comparisons so that people finally understand a great danger we are in. The scientific journal “Advances in Atmospheric Sciences”, for instance, says that “the heat absorbed today by the world’s oceans is now equivalent to dropping roughly five Hiroshima bombs into them every second over the past 25 years”.
What consequences should we expect?
Global warming is already responsible for ozone holes, an increase in rainfall, and lower oxygen levels. Greenland`s melting is also one of the dramatic consequences of global warming. And since Greenland has been melting at an extremely fast level, we should be ready for what is coming.
Even a small change in sea-level rise would mean harsher storms, hurricanes, and high tides. Heatwaves in Europe are also expected to become a common thing because if glaciers melt, there will be nothing to cool down the planet.
“Over 600 million people live in low-lying coastal areas that are or will be affected by rising sea-levels,” says Dr. Flowers. Statistics show that when sea levels rise by only one centimeter another 6 million people around the world are threatened by coastal flooding. It means that all countries with seaside access should begin to strengthen coastal zones and the infrastructure located there. The countries in the biggest danger are China, Thailand, the UK, and Bangladesh.
Local people in Greenland will also suffer from melting as they heavily depend on nature around them. Fishing, hunting, and tourism industries will be affected the most. “Less ice means there is no need for sled dogs because fishermen can sail all winter, and it means the disappearing of our culture”, says the spokesman of the magazine “Greenland Today”.
A lot of experts have already compared climate change to the current situation with COVID-19. Some of the world leaders denied the existence of coronavirus, just like they deny the problem of climate change. They did not pay attention to either of these problems until they got bigger and bigger and finally started affecting everyone.
However, while the whole world is talking about coronavirus, there is little information about climate changes which we are undergoing now. Even though both of these processes are deadly to humans. “I think we have already learned a lot from COVID-19 about what governments are willing and able to do when they identify something as a crisis”, says Dr. Flowers. “There are lessons to be learned in this for how to deal with the climate crisis”.