Greenland, a realm of ice and snow, could be living up to its name by turning truly green. And that’s bad news.
Greenland, a realm of ice and snow, is set to be living up to its name by turning truly green. And that’s bad news. The vast, largely uninhabited island is losing its ice covering at a rapid pace, scientists have warned.
Between 2003 and 2016, Greenland’s massive ice sheet, which is up to 3km thick in some parts, lost around 255 gigatons of ice a year, thereby contributing to a measurable rise in sea level. Last year alone Greenland, an island seven times as large as the United Kingdom, lost a record 532 billion tons, or the equivalent of six Olympic-sized swimming pools every second.
And much worse is to come as the climate continues to warm at the current pace. The ice sheets on Greenland will soon be reaching a point of no return beyond which they can no longer regenerate in winter after losing much of their volume in summer, according to new research by scientists at the University of Reading in the UK, which underlines similar findings in previous studies.
In less than two decades Greenland’s sheets have already lost three and a half trillion tons of ice despite seasonal fluctuations in their volume. At current rates the melting of the island’s ice is adding almost 1 millimeter to sea level each year, accounting for a quarter of the total rise in sea level.
That may not sound like much, but the island’s ice sheets will continue to experience accelerating losses as a result of warming weather until a tipping point is reached.
If global warming extends beyond the target of 2°C, researchers say, ice loss on Greenland and elsewhere will be so significant that sea level will rise by several meters globally, inundating shorelines and making low-lying coastal areas uninhabitable worldwide from the Maldives to Bangladesh to the United Kingdom.
Once there has been too much loss of ice on Greenland, the process will be irreversible even if in future we manage to lower temperatures to current levels because ice sheets will not be able to regrow if melting has gone past a critical point.
“After that point, sea levels would permanently remain two meters higher than now, regardless of other factors contributing to sea level rise,” the scientists explain in a statement. “This is because the ice sheet is so large that it has a substantial impact on its local climate, and as it declines, Greenland would experience warmer temperatures and less snowfall.”
The solution is to lower our carbon emissions as fast as possible to ensure that the climate won’t warm too much before it’s too late.
“To avoid partially irreversible loss of the ice sheet, climate change must be reversed — not just stabilised — before we reach the critical point where the ice sheet has declined too far,” stresses Prof. Jonathan Gregory, a climate scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the University of Reading.