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Heat Wave over Greenland Accelerating Melting of Island’s Ice Sheet

The area of the Greenland ice sheet that is showing indications of melt has been growing daily, and hit a record 56.5%

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Heat Wave, Greenland, Island
FILE - Melt water lakes are seen on the edge of an ice cap in Nunatarssuk, Greenland, in this aerial view taken on June 22, 2019. VOA

The heat wave that smashed high temperature records in five European countries a week ago is now over Greenland, accelerating the melting of the island’s ice sheet and causing massive ice loss in the Arctic.

Greenland, the world’s largest island, is a semi-autonomous Danish territory between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans that has 82% of its surface covered in ice.

The area of the Greenland ice sheet that is showing indications of melt has been growing daily, and hit a record 56.5% for this year on Wednesday, said Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist with the Danish Meteorological Institute. She says that’s expected to expand and peak on Thursday before cooler temperatures slow the pace of the melt.

More than 10 billion tons (11 billion U.S. tons) of ice was lost to the oceans by surface melt on Wednesday alone, creating a net mass ice loss of some 197 billion tons (217 billion U.S. tons) from Greenland in July, she said.

Heat Wave, Greenland, Island
The heat wave that smashed high temperature records in five European countries a week ago is now over Greenland, accelerating the melting of the island’s ice sheet. Pixabay

”It looks like the peak will be today. But the long-term forecast is for continuing warm and sunny weather in Greenland, so that means the amount of the ice loss will continue,” she said Thursday in a telephone interview from Copenhagen.

The scope of Wednesday’s ice melt is a number difficult to grasp. To understand just how much ice is being lost, a mere 1 billion tons — or 1 gigaton — of ice loss is equivalent to about 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, the Danish Meteorological Institute said.  And 100 billion tons (110 billion U.S. tons) corresponds to a 0.28 mm (0.01 inch) rise in global sea levels.

Mottram said since June 1 — roughly the start of the ice-loss season — the Greenland ice sheet has lost 240 gigatons (240 billion metric tons) this year. That compares with 290 gigatons lost overall in the 2012 melt season, which usually goes through the end of August.

A June 2019 study by scientists in the U.S. and Denmark said melting ice in Greenland alone will add between 5 and 33 centimeters (2 to 13 inches) to rising global sea levels by the year 2100. If all the ice in Greenland melted — which would take centuries — the world’s oceans would rise by 7.2 meters (23 feet, 7 inches), the study found.

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The current melting has been brought on by the arrival of the same warm air from North Africa and Spain that melted European cities and towns last week, setting national temperature records in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Britain.

In Russia, meanwhile, forest fires caused by hot, dry weather and spread by high winds are raging over nearly 30,000 square kilometers (11,580 sq. miles) of territory in Siberia and the Russian Far East, an area the size of Belgium. The smoke from these fires, some of them in Arctic territory, is so heavy it can easily be seen in satellite photos and is causing air quality problems in Russia’s third-largest city, Novosibirsk. Protesters in Moscow on Thursday were demanding that the government do more to fight the blazes.

Greenland has also been battling a slew of Arctic wildfires, something that Mottram said was uncommon in the past.

In Greenland, the melt area this year is the second-biggest in terms of ice area affected, behind more than 90% in 2012, said Mark Serreze, director of the Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, which monitors ice sheets globally. Records go back to 1981.

Heat Wave, Greenland, Island
Greenland, the world’s largest island, is a semi-autonomous Danish territory between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans that has 82% of its surface covered in ice. Pixabay

A lot of what melts can later refreeze onto the ice sheet, but because of the conditions ahead of this summer’s heat wave, the amount of ice lost for good this year might be the same as in 2012 or more, according to scientists.  They noted a long build up to this summer’s ice melt — including higher overall temperatures for months — and a very dry winter with little snow in many places, which would normally offer some protection to glacier ice.

”This is certainly a weather event superimposed on this overall trend of warmer conditions” that have increasingly melted Greenland ice over the long term, Serreze said.

Compounding the melt, the Greenland ice sheet started out behind this year because of the low ice and snow accumulation, said Snow and Ice Data Center scientist Twila Moon.

With man-made climate change, “there’s a potential for these kind of rates to become more common 50 years from now,” Moon said.

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Heat waves have always occurred, but Mike Sparrow, a spokesman for the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, noted that as global temperatures have risen, extreme heat waves are now occurring at least 10 times more frequently than a century ago. This year, the world saw its hottest month of June ever.

”These kind of heat waves are weather events and can occur naturally but studies have shown that both the frequency and intensity of these heat waves have increased due to global warming,” Sparrow said in a telephone interview from Geneva.

He noted that sea ice spread in the Arctic and Antarctic are both currently at record lows.

”When people talk about the average global temperature increasing by a little more than 1 degree [Celsius], that’s not a huge amount to notice if you’re sitting in Hamburg or London, but that’s a global average and it’s much greater in the polar regions,” he said.

Even though temperatures will be going down in Greenland by the end of this week, the ice melt is not likely to stop anytime soon, Mottram said.

”Over the last couple of days, you could see the warm wave passing over Greenland,” she said. “That peak of warm air has passed over the summit of the ice sheet, but the clear skies are almost as important, or maybe even more important, for the total melt of the ice sheet.”

She added that clear skies are likely to continue in Greenland “so we can still get a lot of ice melt even if the temperature is not spectacularly high.” (VOA)

Next Story

European Heat Wave Threatens to Accelerate Ice Melt in Greenland, Warn Climate Scientists

100 metric gigatons contribute to about 0.28 millimeters (0.01 inches) of global sea level rise

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Meltwater drains from Greenland’s ice sheet at such a fast rate that researchers couldn’t risk entering the water to get readings so they used a remote-controlled drone boat. (UCLA/ Laurence C. Smith) VOA

As Europe’s record-breaking heat wave drifts toward the Arctic, it threatens to accelerate the melting of ice in Greenland, which already started earlier than normal this year, climate scientists warned Saturday.

After breaking records over Europe, the heat wave has swept over Scandinavia and is predicted to move toward Greenland, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

“As it is forecast to move over the Arctic it will potentially bring a large amount of energy that will melt ice, both sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and the ice sheet surface over the next 3 to 5 days,” Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist with the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI), told AFP.

greenland, arctic
Arctic permafrost is melting decades earlier than even worst-case scenarios, he said, threatening to unlock vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas. VOA

Early, warm melting season

That heat will add to a summer where the melting season started early and “persistent warm conditions have led to a very large loss of ice.” According to DMI’s models an estimated 170 metric gigatons of water have been added to the world’s oceans from melted ice and snow between July 1 to July 26.

100 metric gigatons contribute to about 0.28 millimeters (0.01 inches) of global sea level rise. The expected average would be about 60 to 80 metric gigatons of ice over the same period.

“So we’re well over what we would normally have,” Mottram said, emphasizing that the rate of melting can vary greatly from one year to the next.

Summer 2012 set record

There are fears that this year’s ice melt in Greenland could approach the record level set in 2012. In “2012 summer conditions were even more extreme and for several days there was quite intense melt all the way to the summit of the ice sheet at 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above sea level,” Mottram said.

greenland, arctic
Researchers have found that the island’s ice sheet lost more than two gigatonnes (a gigaton is equal to one billion tonnes) of ice due to a widespread melting event. Pixabay

A similar melting event has not been observed this year so far, but with the heat wave approaching Greenland there could be a repeat.

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Although the melting has been persistent this year, with relatively high temperatures day after day, “though within the normal range,” it is still unlike 2012 when melting was much more driven by “several very extreme melting days,” according to Mottram.

But Mottram also noted that higher than average melting coincides with a trend of “increasing melt rates over the last two decades.” Melting ice in Greenland is also quite closely linked to global temperatures, meaning that as global temperatures rise, “we expect more melting to occur.” (VOA)