Greenland’s ice sheet has lost significantly more ice than previously thought since 1985, according to a major new study published this week in the journal Nature. The findings provide the most definitive evidence yet that the impacts of climate change on the Arctic region are rapidly intensifying.
Key Findings Show Faster Rate of Ice Loss
The study, conducted by an international team of glaciologists, found that Greenland’s ice sheet lost a staggering 5,760 gigatons (5.76 trillion tons) of ice between 1985 and 2023. This represents an average annual loss of 200 gigatons over the 39-year study period.
To put this figure in perspective, 200 gigatons of melted ice is equivalent to:
- Losing 55 billion elephants worth of ice per year
- Adding a sheet of ice 30 meters thick across an area the size of the UK to the ocean every year
- Adding 816 Empire State Buildings worth of ice to the oceans every hour
As the Guardian reports, this means Greenland is now losing ice 7 times faster than in the 1990s. The ice sheet is melting so rapidly that it has lost enough ice over the past 4 decades to raise global sea levels by 2 centimeters.
|Average Annual Ice Loss (Gigatons)
Driven by Warming oceans and Atmosphere
The researchers attributed this dramatic acceleration in ice loss to rapidly warming air and ocean temperatures around Greenland. Measurements show that both the atmosphere and oceans in the Arctic have warmed by around 2°C since 1980.
This warming is driving increased surface melting across Greenland each summer. The meltwater then either runs off into the ocean or drains to the bottom of the ice sheet, lubricating the base and enabling faster-flowing outlet glaciers.
As Zack Labe, a glaciologist at Colorado State University tweeted, this highlights that “marine-terminating glaciers remain incredibly sensitive to ocean and atmospheric changes.”
Overall, the study found that approximately half the ice loss was due to increased surface melting and runoff, while the other half was driven by accelerated glacier flow triggered by rising ocean temperatures.
Impacts on Sea Level Projections
The findings indicate that the Greenland ice sheet could be a larger contributor to future sea level rise this century than previously predicted.
As the New York Times reports, many sea level rise projections had assumed more modest rates of ice loss continuing into the future. But this study shows the ice sheet appears to be changing faster than those models anticipated.
Consequently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent sea level rise projections from 2021 could now be too conservative. Those projections indicated approximately 30-55 cm of global sea level rise is likely by 2100.
With Greenland losing ice 7 times faster than in the 1990s, experts commenting on the new study said total sea level rise this century is now more likely to be between 50-100 cm. Over time, this amount of sea level rise would put many coastal regions and low-lying island nations at heightened risk from coastal flooding and permanent inundation.
Responses Highlight Urgency for Climate Action
The scale and implications of the ice loss detailed by the study provoked strong reactions from climate scientists and environmental groups.
Professor Jonathan Bamber from the University of Bristol, who was not involved in the study, told the Guardian “Given what we know now about how sensitive Greenland is to climate change, these results are very concerning.”
Meanwhile, the Director of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven, said “This should set alarm bells ringing in capitals across the world. The meltdown of Greenland could have devastating consequences…No one can now say we haven’t been warned of the scale of the threat.”
The study therefore adds further weight to calls for urgent, ambitious action from governments and corporations to rapidly transition global economies away from fossil fuels and halt destructive environmental exploitation.
What Happens Next?
With atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continuing to increase each year, experts expect melting and ice loss in Greenland to intensify over the coming years and decades.
Even if ambitious climate targets are met, research indicates continued ice loss is now inevitable due to lags in the climate system. But rapid, deep cuts to emissions this decade would substantially slow the rate of future melting.
Consequently, the international community faces a narrowing window of opportunity to stabilize temperatures and avoid committing Greenland and the world’s ice sheets to many additional meters of irreversible, long-term sea level rise. Determining whether that opportunity will be seized or not looms as one of the defining questions of this century.
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