What Happens in Greenland Will Not Stay in Greenland

NWF   |   August 3, 2007

Ice is melting at an alarming pace all over the world. Nowhere is it more obvious than at head of the Jakobshavn Fjord near the town of Ilulissat on the west coast of Greenland. Ilulissat, a fishing village with 500 fishing boats, 5,000 people and nearly as many pure-bred Huskies, has experienced a 9 degree F rise in average temperature over the past two decades.

Dog sledding on Disco Bay, once the primary means of winter travel, is ending because waters are failing to freeze, even during the winter. Icebergs, in unprecedented numbers, are calving from nearby glaciers. Roaring muddy waters rush from the base of crumbling glaciers feeding the fjords and eventually the ocean.

Massive icebergs are calving off of the face of the Jakobshavn glacial "tongue" at a rate of about 6 feet per hour. The ice sloughs off of the 7 mile-wide glacier and plunges 100 feet into the fjord. Elsewhere, thunderous cracks rattle massive icebergs that are jammed among ice debris, as they push and shove each other along a clogged fjord at a flow rate of 5 miles per hour. This single glacier is responsible for 20 percent of Greenland’s melt-water flowing into the ocean.

Greenland’s vast, undulating icescapes have been warming rapidly, particularly in the south where they are causing about 4 percent of the annual sea-level rise worldwide. The "accretion zone," a vast area at Greenland’s margins where ice is melting faster than it is being replaced, has expanded dramatically, particularly in southern Greenland in the past ten years. According to the recent Arctic Climate Impact Assessment led by Dr. Robert Corell and involving over 300 scientists, "Over the past two decades, the melt area on the Greenland ice sheet has increased on average by about 0.7 percent/year or about 16 percent from 1979 to 2002."

As the highly reflective ice surface melts, water drains toward low-lying depressions to form lakes on the glacial ice surfaces. The many, many newly-formed lakes on Greenland’s vast ice mass create what scientists call "positive feedbacks." I hate the term "positive feedback" because it confuses the public and policy makers by suggesting something positive is going on when in reality, it’s a very bad thing because newly formed lakes with their dark surfaces absorb about 80 percent of incoming sunlight while ice reflects about 90 percent of sunlight back into space. The "lake effect" thus amplifies the rate of ice melting—causing global warming to become much worse and happen much faster than previous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports predicted.

Scientists know that these lakes accelerate melt, although on-going studies are currently assessing more accurately the rate of acceleration. One thing is clear: Early predictive models need to be revised upward because Greenland’s ice is melting much faster than expected. Greenland, the largest island on the planet, is a giant solar reflector but is gradually becoming an energy absorber.

Eventually, melt waters flow out of literally thousands of temporary lakes and spill over on to the icescape cutting vivid, aqua-blue channels of rushing water that flow along deeply-cut fractures until the water finds vertical cracks and drains through the massive ice formation to the bottom miles below. Large volumes of melt water now sitting under glaciers form a sheet flow of muddy water and fine sediments that move under the glaciers to nearby fjords.

All of this water below the glaciers reduces friction with the rocks below, allowing the glaciers to slide more quickly into the ocean. As Greenland’s highly lubricated glaciers move, they create dramatic ice quakes that range between 4.1 and 5.3 on the Richter Scale and show up on seismic measuring devices all over the world. The number of large ice quakes doubled in the 1990s and redoubled since 2000. One glacial movement got my attention, as a 6 cubic-mile block of ice slid 42 feet in less than a minute. Because no one can yet accurately predict this "non-linear" ice breakup, the most recent IPCC report did not account for the current acceleration in melting.

Many believe that the ice on Greenland will only melt faster when the ice mass floating on the Arctic completely disappears in the summer months. This catastrophic event is now predicted to happen sometime between 2020 and 2040. The last time in the ancient past when the Arctic ice completely disappeared, three-quarters of Greenland eventually melted. If that happened again, sea levels would eventually be over 14 feet higher. That’s more than enough to flood all beaches, coastal wetland habitats, and flood out millions of people living in coastal communities and cities across the planet.

What is now happening in Greenland should be an emergency alarm for every one of us. By emitting millions of tons of carbon pollution day-by-day, we are altering the world’s coastal maps, wrecking critical wildlife habitat and threatening the very fabric of every coastal community. Millions upon millions of inhabitants around the world are at risk.

Most Americans know that global warming is happening but few understand that it is a pending crisis needing immediate action. We must demand sound energy policies now! Let’s create a safer energy future that keeps the ice on Greenland. After all, what happens in Greenland will not stay in Greenland.

Published: August 3, 2007