Meltdown: The Alarmingly Rapid Disappearance of Greenland’s Glaciers

Scarlet Heart Glacier

Scarlet Heart Glacier in Greenland. The white lines mark where scientists believe the glacier edge was at the end of the little ice age in 1900. Credit: Dr. Jonathan L. Carrivick

Research has discovered an extensive and continuous loss of glaciers and ice caps across Greenland, starting from the early years of the 20th century.

This investigation gives us a valuable perspective on the long-term alterations to these glaciers and ice caps due to climate change. It has been observed that these changes have been responsible for approximately one-fifth of the total global sea-level rise in the past ten years.

By utilizing historical data, researchers were able to chart the existence of 5,327 glaciers and ice caps at the conclusion of the Little Ice Age in 1900, a time marked by a considerable decline in global temperatures, reaching a drop of up to 2°C. By doing this, they established that these massive ice bodies had broken down into 5,467 distinct glaciers and ice caps by the year 2001.

The study, which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, said Greenland’s glaciers have lost at least 587 km3 of ice over the last century, accounting for 1.38 millimeters of sea-level rise.

It estimated that the speed at which the water melted between 2000 and 2019 was three times higher than the long-term – since 1900 – average.

Lead author, Dr. Jonathan L. Carrivick from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, said: “The impact of meltwater runoff from Greenland into the North Atlantic extends beyond global sea-level rise, affecting North Atlantic ocean circulation, European climate patterns, and Greenlandic fjord water quality and marine ecosystems.

“This has immense implications on humans too, with these glacier changes having a direct impact on the economic activities of fishing, mining, and hydropower, as well as affecting people’s health and behavior.”

Jungersen Gletschur in Greenland

Near Jungersen Gletschur in Greenland. The white lines show where scientists believe the glacier edges were in 1900. Credit: Bob Elberling.

Greenland’s glaciers and ice caps rank as the second-largest source of meltwater, after Alaska.

Co-author, Dr. Clare Boston from the School of the Environment, Geography, and Geosciences at the University of Portsmouth, said: “Previous research using satellite data suggests Greenland’s glaciers and ice caps could lose between 19 percent and 28 percent of their volume by 2100.

“These predictions only use information gathered from the past few decades, whereas our research provides baseline data from more than 100 years ago. Seeing how glaciers have evolved over a longer period of time, can give us a better chance of predicting how they’ll change in the future.

“It’s also important to note, that we only looked at glaciers and ice caps that were at least 1 km2 in area, so the overall amount of ice that has melted would be even more than our predictions if you take into account the smaller ones.”

The paper stresses the importance of understanding these changes in the context of global sea-level rise.

The research also emphasizes the complex nature of glacier evolution due to considerable differences in locations, temperatures, and the influence of regional and local factors.

Glaciers in the North have experienced the greatest speed up in rate of mass loss compared to other regions. Glaciers terminating in lakes have increased the most in their rate of mass loss.

Dr. Carrivick added: “This study contributes great spatial coverage, spatial resolution, and temporal detail to our understanding of Greenland’s glacier changes, providing a valuable resource for policymakers, scientists, and stakeholders concerned with climate change and its impacts.

“It represents a crucial step towards unraveling the dynamics of Greenland’s glaciers and their role in global climate change, as the world faces the challenges posed by a warming Arctic.”

Reference: “Mass Loss of Glaciers and Ice Caps Across Greenland Since the Little Ice Age” by Jonathan L. Carrivick, Clare M. Boston, Jenna L. Sutherland, Danni Pearce, Hugo Armstrong, Anders Bjørk, Kristian K. Kjeldsen, Jakob Abermann, Rachel P. Oien, Michael Grimes, William H. M. James and Mark W. Smith, 18 May 2023, Geophysical Research Letters.
DOI: 10.1029/2023GL103950

1 Comment on "Meltdown: The Alarmingly Rapid Disappearance of Greenland’s Glaciers"

  1. Clyde Spencer | May 31, 2023 at 9:30 am | Reply

    “It has been observed that these changes have been responsible for approximately one-fifth of the total global sea-level rise in the past ten years.”

    That is an interesting claim because there has been no statistically significant global warming for almost 9 years.

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