Climate Scientists Sound the Alarm: Warming Greenland Ice Sheet Passes Point of No Return

Iceberg Near Greenland

Satellite data spanning nearly four decades reveals that Greenland’s glaciers have experienced significant shrinkage. Even if global warming were to halt immediately, the ice sheet would continue to diminish.

Even if the climate cools, study finds, glaciers will continue to shrink.

Nearly 40 years of satellite data from Greenland shows that glaciers on the island have shrunk so much that even if global warming were to stop today, the ice sheet would continue shrinking.

The finding, published today, August 13, in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, means that Greenland’s glaciers have passed a tipping point of sorts, where the snowfall that replenishes the ice sheet each year cannot keep up with the ice that is flowing into the ocean from glaciers.

“We’ve been looking at these remote sensing observations to study how ice discharge and accumulation have varied,” said Michalea King, lead author of the study and a researcher at The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. “And what we’ve found is that the ice that’s discharging into the ocean is far surpassing the snow that’s accumulating on the surface of the ice sheet.”

Icebergs Near Greenland

Icebergs near Greenland form from ice that has broken off–or calved–from glaciers on the island. A new study shows that the glaciers are losing ice rapidly enough that, even if global warming were to stop, Greenland’s glaciers would continue to shrink. Credit: Photo courtesy Michalea King

King and other researchers analyzed monthly satellite data from more than 200 large glaciers draining into the ocean around Greenland. Their observations show how much ice breaks off into icebergs or melts from the glaciers into the ocean. They also show the amount of snowfall each year—the way these glaciers get replenished.

The researchers found that, throughout the 1980s and 90s, snow gained through accumulation and ice melted or calved from glaciers were mostly in balance, keeping the ice sheet intact. Through those decades, the researchers found, the ice sheets generally lost about 450 gigatons (about 450 billion tons) of ice each year from flowing outlet glaciers, which was replaced with snowfall.

“We are measuring the pulse of the ice sheet—how much ice glaciers drain at the edges of the ice sheet—which increases in the summer. And what we see is that it was relatively steady until a big increase in ice discharging to the ocean during a short five- to six-year period,” King said.

Michalea King

Michalea King

The researchers’ analysis found that the baseline of that pulse—the amount of ice being lost each year—started increasing steadily around 2000, so that the glaciers were losing about 500 gigatons each year. Snowfall did not increase at the same time, and over the last decade, the rate of ice loss from glaciers has stayed about the same—meaning the ice sheet has been losing ice more rapidly than it’s being replenished.

“Glaciers have been sensitive to seasonal melt for as long as we’ve been able to observe it, with spikes in ice discharge in the summer,” she said. “But starting in 2000, you start superimposing that seasonal melt on a higher baseline—so you’re going to get even more losses.”

Before 2000, the ice sheet would have about the same chance to gain or lose mass each year. In the current climate, the ice sheet will gain mass in only one out of every 100 years.

King said that large glaciers across Greenland have retreated about 3 kilometers on average since 1985—“that’s a lot of distance,” she said. The glaciers have shrunk back enough that many of them are sitting in deeper water, meaning more ice is in contact with water. Warm ocean water melts glacier ice, and also makes it difficult for the glaciers to grow back to their previous positions.

That means that even if humans were somehow miraculously able to stop climate change in its tracks, ice lost from glaciers draining ice to the ocean would likely still exceed ice gained from snow accumulation, and the ice sheet would continue to shrink for some time.

“Glacier retreat has knocked the dynamics of the whole ice sheet into a constant state of loss,” said Ian Howat, a co-author on the paper, professor of earth sciences and distinguished university scholar at Ohio State. “Even if the climate were to stay the same or even get a little colder, the ice sheet would still be losing mass.”

Shrinking glaciers in Greenland are a problem for the entire planet. The ice that melts or breaks off from Greenland’s ice sheets ends up in the Atlantic Ocean—and, eventually, all of the world’s oceans. Ice from Greenland is a leading contributor to sea level rise—last year, enough ice melted or broke off from the Greenland ice sheet to cause the oceans to rise by 2.2 millimeters in just two months.

The new findings are bleak, but King said there are silver linings.

“It’s always a positive thing to learn more about glacier environments, because we can only improve our predictions for how rapidly things will change in the future,” she said. “And that can only help us with adaptation and mitigation strategies. The more we know, the better we can prepare.”

Reference: “Dynamic ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet driven by sustained glacier retreat” by Michalea D. King, Ian M. Howat, Salvatore G. Candela, Myoung J. Noh, Seonsgu Jeong, Brice P. Y. Noël, Michiel R. van den Broeke, Bert Wouters and Adelaide Negrete, 13 August 2020, Communications Earth and Environment.
DOI: 10.1038/s43247-020-0001-2

This work was supported by grants from NASA. Other Ohio State researchers who worked on this study are Salvatore Candela, Myoung Noh and Adelaide Negrete.

37 Comments on "Climate Scientists Sound the Alarm: Warming Greenland Ice Sheet Passes Point of No Return"

  1. This is shocking to read and yet many governments and world leaders know about this and do nothing. The Human race seems to be on course to self-destruct. Why with all this data available nothing is being done. Has the world gone mad. Why is this not main news?

    • Hay David,this is all about you ,if you change there will be a tangible change in collective also ,waiting for collective to change will be always disappointing. And yes we are mad

  2. Totally agree with you. This is terrible news that should put certain countries in this world to shame! Generations from now will look at us as being the destroyers of Earth.

  3. It is stunning that so many people have ignored this problem for years. Even more crazy is that in the US many people are convinced that this too is some sort of hoax! Science has been set aside as some sort of cast off part of society only deemed necessary when someone wants a new toy or cell phone, or when a new miracle drug is called for to bail out those who initially ignored the obvious. Some day when water is lapping at their front doors they may wake up… but then those same people who demonized science will be saying ” how did this happen? And why didn’t someone do something about this?” By then od course it will be too late. Historians of the future, assuming humanity lives long enough, are surely going to look back on this time and be agast at our collective hubris and ignorance to facts.

    • The reason christians work so hard to discredit science is in preparation for the day science discovers evidence of life on another planet. That will ruin the whole idea that christians here on earth are god’s chosen people. So all this work is being done now to shoot down that discovery in the future.

  4. What do propose to do about it? Do you really think some treaty with carbon trading is a workable answer? The only thing likely to reverse global warming is mass extinction. The world is currently occupied by over 7 billion people. Those people need to be fed, sheltered and clothed and to do that requires industrial level infrastructure. Rich people can afford sustainability….poor people haven’t the luxury.

    • A treaty with carbon trading is a tiny first step. It is not nearly enough, but it will help. If the 1% who control the resources and pollute our home are made to pay for the damage they cause, the world will become a little more equitable.

    • I used to think overpopulation was a big issue too, but have come to understand that it’s not what we should be focusing on. Take a look at Figures 1 and 4 of this article. The ways in which us seven billion Earthlings feed, shelter, and clothe ourselves varies greatly by wealth and by country. Not all lifestyles and built environments are unsustainable. Mass extinction would be awful – perhaps there are other ways we can change the course of our future.

  5. “…, the ice sheet would continue shrinking.” The question that isn’t answered, let alone asked, is for how long? Your car doesn’t stop the instant you apply the brakes. Why should anyone expect natural processes to be any different? The implication is that this means all Greenland ice will ultimately disappear. However, even the authors say “Greenland’s glaciers have passed a tipping point OF SORTS, …” What does that mean? It is akin to saying someone experienced a death “of sorts.” One either dies or they don’t. Similarly, a Tipping Point is reached or it isn’t. Even during the Eemian, which was much warmer than today, all the Greenland ice did not melt. Over the thousands of years that it would take for the Greenland ice to melt, at current rates, many changes are possible. An obvious situation is that as the glaciers melt, they will withdraw from the sea and not be subject to melting from the warmer water. As they move upwards, the remaining ice will not be subject to the warmer air temperatures found near the coast, at low elevations. There is a lot of hand waving in this report and most of the commenters here accept it at face value without examining the unstated assumptions.



  7. Even small, slow changes could become disastrous as seen in the mathematics of Catastrophe theory, a set of methods used to study and classify the ways in which a system can undergo sudden large changes in behavior as one or more of the variables that control it, are changed continuously. … Catastrophe theory is a branch of bifurcation theory in the study of dynamical systems.

  8. The problem is self correcting. The ice sheets will melt, the climate will change, food production will be ruptured and maybe 4-6 billion people will die. Then we can start the cycle all over again.

  9. Craig K Dillon | August 15, 2020 at 9:48 pm | Reply

    Actually, the point of no return was passed 20 years ago.
    Since humanity had decided not to do anything, and was pleased to watch annual CO2 increase go from 1ppm/yr, to 2ppm/yr, to 2.5ppm/yr today.
    With the rate of CO2 rise increasing, there was no way for the melting of glaciers and ice sheets to stop. In fact, their melting has accelerated.
    The last time CO2 was this high was during the Pliocene when oceans were 70ft deeper.
    Therefore, I expect the oceans to get AT LEAST 70 ft deeper.
    It will take a few hundred years, but the shorelines that have been little changed in 6000 years, will be unrecognizable in a few hundred years.
    Towns that were seaports 2000 years ago, like Alexandria, Tyre, Piraeus, and Marseilles will be under water in a few hundred years. Productive deltas like the Nile Delta, Mekong Delta, Mississippi Delta, et al will all be gone.
    I wonder if the stress of it will cause wars???
    Since humanity has decided to do nothing — then nothing will stop it.
    Wasn’t the Holocene nice???
    I hope you enjoyed it, for it won’t be here much longer.

  10. Well, all the post apocalyptic earth incinerating by human activities , i’s still steeped in the ideological dogma of Malthusian mis-calculated detri-humanist apologetics for planetary totalitarian engineering of human resource managed deconstruction.
    Mal-thus’iastic as his prediction’s failed entirely on input’s that he never bothered to fully model for in his manually computed manner , is still the same simple conundrums of failure plaguing these psuedo-scientists of today who still think the big picture is so certain to them while leaving out input of tremendously potent moderating forces , just to chant the same old “sacrifice the virgins” to the gods of the volcano that will surely burn us and our earth to crisp if not apleased by enough deaths or births prevented. The Maldives are now constructing four “underwater” airports due to increasing tourism and trade underneath the rising sea’s you’ve predicted would bury them by 2020, yet tidegauge average trendline of acceleration of sealevel rise since 1984’s prediction is nearly identical to the same accelerated trendline going back for several hundred years ; accelerating increase rate of about +/- 0.004-0.007mm per year ,,, of course forget to add any mention of the solar irradiant minimum cooling the planet for the next thirty five years, or the fact that because we can more precisely measure what we previously could not makes us assume greater import of recent alarm to what we just now have taken a notice of ! But, while clamping eyes tightly shut to the greatest influence greeting us each day. – NO NOT HUMANS !
    Stop anthropomorphizing
    Nihilistic nightmares
    Of dantes,inferno .
    Please, stop preaching your cultish Science fictional nightmares of yet so many more tipping points that forever have been passed into the certain oblivion of never being measurably observed, before the next extreme predicted overlap of alarm can eclipse it’s previous gross mis-calculated errors have left them again to be in dumfounded awe of once again being wronged by nature’s persistent defiance against the ignorance of

  11. Wow, at least we’re going with style. High ocean water is cool.
    Humans, again, are destroying everything we’re being handled.

  12. Your fake news on the malting Greenland ice is disgusting. Get a bloody grip and stop this corrupt s#!t.

  13. Don’t print fake news. Thete is NO climate problem.

  14. Lolo O’Brien | August 16, 2020 at 6:14 am | Reply

    The Green New Deal and the Biden Harris Climate plan take vital steps to slow climate change. What can we do? Vote climate change deniers out of office and pass legislation to bolster renewable energy infrastructure, sustainable agriculture and research. We have the technology and knowledge to fight climate change, the issue is political will.

    • Lolo
      You asked, “What can we do?” Well, I suppose we could do a modified Rain Dance to stop warming. It would have about as much basis in fact and effect as the proposed CO2-related suggestions.

      There are few, if any, “climate change deniers.” It is obvious that climate changes! What skeptics question is the role and amount of influence that anthropogenic CO2 has. Your simplistic characterzation speaks volumes about your grasp of the dynamics of climate change. If one doesn’t understand the ‘problem,’ then proposed solutions have about as much chance of working as a Rain Dance or sacrificing a virgin to volcano.

    • Can you imagine the whole world driving electric cars,with no direction where’

  15. God said that he would not destroy the earth by water again. I believe him. Peter,an apostle of the Christ, wrote for us “… the elements shall melt with fervent heat…” I believe that, too. At some point in time, the sun will burn man, the waters will turn to blood, river will dry up so that the kings can cross, and so there is nothing phenomenal about the disappearance of ice sheets and caps and glaciers. They will be done away with.

    • I am so jealous of you. I have not been able to score any good LSD in many years. Sounds like yours is primo, enjoy!

  16. To TGON
    You day ppl in the US ignore this problem. Why is it that Japan and China are the biggest contributors to polluting the earth. No mention of them though. Sounds like a US hater. The earth will always be warming up. The only reason ppl in the US don’t feel we should contribute is cause it’s a BIG scam, the money won’t be used for climate change research. They will pocket 80% of it like the Obama administration. That’s why we feel it’s a hoax and not worth our tax dollars. Why not stop investing life on another planet and invest in making our own planted cleaner.

  17. This is it! Time to die guys! Nothing to be afraid of. Living here on earth is hell!

  18. The world as we know is not thesame as 2000-3000 years ago.
    All these things e.g (climate change, global warming, outbreak of diseases, war and conflict in some part of nations e.t.c) are signs of the closing edge (END OF THE WORLD) something even much worsed than we are experiencing will come, that just the fact, I’m not suprise all these things are going on-in our planet earth and i see more happening in the nearest future, cus the BIBLE has predicted it since the foundation Of this world (Planet Earth) through the WORDS OF JESUS CHRIST.
    The only place called home is not here on earth but in Heaven, for surely the earth shall be destroyed and burnt, the question is how can we get to Heaven?
    Answer: JESUS CHRIST IS THE WAY TO HEAVEN, Believe and accept him has your LORD and saviour.

    to get full details about the end of the world and the things that gonna happen, go through the BIBLE.
    Marthew 24:3-29

    And Mind you, you may be thinking is the activities and problem pose by human is causing the downfall of planet earth, but… it isn’t, it’s just the end of edge that all.

  19. And then there was this. I think it is always better to error on the side of caution when it comes to climate change especially when you don’t know who or whom to believe. Much like pandemic news!

  20. Strange… I monitor satellite imagery of glaciers, and they’re growing. This article is fake news. It pains me that so many people believe this garbage because they’ve been indoctrinated their entire lives through false climate prophets and the co opting of public schools and mainstream media. If you really think the Earth is getting warmer, you go right ahead and buy all the shorts and sandals you want. I’ll be stockpiling jackets and fuel on my beachfront property. We’ll see who survives the next sixty years. We shall see.

    • Brent
      You are being disingenuous. Some glaciers are growing, but most are shrinking. But, that isn’t surprising or alarming. We live in an interglacial and glaciers have been melting for approximately 20,000 years! Sea level has been rising at a constant rate for about the last 8,000 years.

  21. im so sorry earth, humans are killing you every single day and im so sorry i hope we’ll do something about this soon <3 much love earth ❤️

  22. The End is Near!

    unless you give us all your money
    … and a sacrificial virgin

    It is a ruse that has worked for thousands of years. The outflow of propaganda since The Planet of the Humans has been interesting to watch – it has created a most interesting financial map.

  23. Mankind is befuddled by things not easily observed. Most of us are too self-absorbed to care. We feel more threatened by day to day fears. The great American left-right divide very often dictates how we feel about things like climate change, and other environmental destruction. It involves our idology, our religion, our psychology, and whether we can use critical thinking. We first have care about humankind as a whole. Do we destroy or do we love and provide care?

  24. I completely agree w u david stone n not is even saying nothing about it anymore it’s rediculous

  25. So sad to hear. And to many here thinks it is a hoax. I’m so embarrassed to be an American

  26. The same group who don’t believe that the pollution from 7.5+ BILLION people can cause the climate to change enough to kill a single person on the planet, also believe that forty days of rain would flood that planet and kill every single person on it.
    What a shame their ignorance is going to cost everyone. It would be nice if somehow we could just round them all up and drop them off in the Sahara Desert or some such.

  27. douglas c fullerton | August 19, 2020 at 7:10 pm | Reply

    how could you think that theend of the world is more important than keeping up with the kardashians…whats wrong with you

  28. Well if you wanted people to take it seriously, you guys should have come up with a scarier name. Global warming was never going to get the desired reaction. I’m not saying I am denying its real… I’m just saying if you wanted me to care you’d have called it something that would concern me. Like global cooling. That would get me to recycle more.

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.