Wedged between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, Greenland is famous for two things – being the largest island in the world and having the second-largest body of ice in the world.
Dubbed as the Greenland Ice Sheet, the latter occupies nearly 80 percent of the surface of the country and dates back to the last ice age, or roughly 110,000 years. In addition to the ice sheet, Greenland also has several isolated glaciers and small ice caps that occupy up to 100,000 sq km of its coastline.
If all the ice in Greenland were to melt, the global sea level would rise by 24 feet, which would change a lot of things about the world as we currently know it.
WHY IS GREENLAND MELTING?
Being situated in the Arctic, Greenland is especially vulnerable to climate change. The Inter-governmental panel on climate change recently reported that the country is currently experiencing an average net loss of 303 billion tons of ice every year.
Scientists warn that the higher the amount of carbon dioxide emissions released into the atmosphere, the faster Greenland’s ice will melt. Fortunately for us, the planet has not yet reached its tipping point as far as Greenland’s ice sheet is concerned and with adequate measures to curb climate change, perhaps that fate can be averted for a long time to come.
What is worrying, however, is that the ice caps and glaciers on Greenland’s coasts have been melting away and are unlikely to ever recover from their current stage.
These findings were recorded by a team of scientists for the Nature Communications journal, who found that Greenland’s coastal ice-caps and glaciers were no longer able to re-grow the ice that had been lost. The scientists also noted that this melting would lead to the global sea level rising by 1.5 inches by 2100.
The glaciers and ice-caps are likely to disappear completely in the near future, which, although worrying, isn’t quite as drastic as the likelihood of the more climatologically isolated Ice sheet melting away.
A TWENTY-YEAR DILEMMA
Greenland’s big melt is by no means a recent phenomenon; in fact, the point of no return was reached two decades ago, in the late 90s, when awareness about the implications of global warming was far more limited than it is today.
So, when did the melting begin and how do we know it has crossed the tipping point?
Between the ancient ice that forms the base of these ice-caps and glaciers and the fresh snow that accumulates on them every year is a layer of older snow called ‘firn’.
Typically, water that has melted from the glaciers and ice-caps drips through gaps in the firn, and is funneled away to the bottom, where the ice is located. Here, the water freezes again, ensuring that the icy bodies continue to grow. However, twenty years ago, these gaps in the firn became fully saturated with more meltwater than the firn was able to accommodate.
The firn froze solid and the gaps were sealed, leading the meltwater to flow over the glacial surfaces and into the ocean. In fact, the glaciers and icecaps began to lose meltwater 65 percent faster than they were able to re-capture it. The resultant loss of ice is the rough equivalent of 14 percent of Greenland’s mass.
Dire as this may seem, these findings are actually helping scientists to gain a clearer understanding of how Greenland’s ice has been responding to climate change and devise suitable measures to help counter this impact.
Scientists now also know what to look for when measuring and monitoring the health of Greenland’s ice Sheet, the loss of which will have serious implications on our planet.