2018-12-05 20:03:17 UTC
Greenland's ice sheet melting rate is accelerating, scientists confirm
Nick Kilvert, environment reporter
05 Dec 2018 19:10Z
[image] Ice melts in front of a glacier face.
Researchers used ice-core data spanning more than 350 years. (Woods
Hole Oceanographic Institution: Matt Osman)
To say it's been a bad year for climate change news is an understatement.
* Greenland melting rate has been up to 5 times greater in last 20
years than pre-industrial rates
* Melting is following an exponential trajectory where small
temperature increases equal much greater melt rates
* The Greenland ice sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels 7 metres
Both the UN Environment and the Intergovtal Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm over the dire climate trajectory we're
on, and the huge efforts needed to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius
above pre-industrial levels.
And in June, research published in Nature pointed to a tripling of the
rate of melting of the Antarctic ice sheet over the last 5 years.
Now, new research published in Nature today has confirmed a similar
trend is occurring in the Greenland ice sheet.
Researchers used ice cores to create a 350 year continuous analysis of
the melting rate of ice in central west Greenland.
An ice core is a sample taken from an ice pack with a hollow drill,
revealing a cross-section that effectively looks back in time, a bit
like the rings of a tree.
[image] An ice core viewed from the bottom.
Ice cores like this one revealed the melting rates of Greenland's ice
sheet over 100s of years. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:
They found that over the last 20 years, the rate of melting has been
as much as 5 times as high as pre-industrial melt rates, and that
the rate of melting is increasing, according to researcher Luke Trusel
from Rowan University in the United States.
"The main conclusion that we found is that it's now melting more in
recent decades than any time in the last 4 centuries, and probably
more than any time in the last 7 to 8 1000 years," Dr
"That change that we've seen in the last 2 decades is unmistakable."
According to their ice core samples, 2012 was "unambiguously" the most
intense melt year on record in Greenland.
An increased rate of melting was detected in the ice cores beginning
in the mid-1800s, which was around the same time as the onset of
industrial-era Arctic warming.
But it was only during the 1970s that the melting clearly breached the
natural range of variability.
In other words, we expect to see some differences in melting between
years, but during the 1970s that melting occurred on a scale beyond
what could possibly be explained by a fluctuation around a stable
average of ice cover. Over 7 metres of sea-level rise locked in
Greenland ice sheet
Significantly, they've confirmed that the increasing melting rate is
following an exponential trajectory, caused by positive feedbacks like
the albedo effect, according to Dr Trusel.
The albedo effect describes the phenomenon where dark surfaces absorb
more heat than reflective white surfaces like ice and snow.
As ice melts, the darker ground beneath absorbs more energy from the
sun, which causes even more melting - creating a feedback loop.
"The response of the ice sheet to a warming climate is not linear," Dr
"What that means practically is that, say we have half a degree of
warming today, that would produce twice as much or more melting than
half a degree that occurred sometime in the past."
Most previous research has used satellite observations and computer
modelling to calculate the rate of melting in Greenland.
This new research has allowed scientists to cross-reference their
satellite observations against physical ice cores, according to Dr
"A lot of our understanding of how [the Greenland ice sheet] is
changing today comes from satellite observations, which are excellent
but give only a limited view," he said.
Being able to trace melting rates back 350 years is a particular
strength of this latest research, according to Matt King from UTAS,
who wasn't involved in this study.
"We haven't had a widespread assessment, certainly going back this far
almost to the time of Shakespeare," Prof King said.
"From these type of measurements we can learn a lot about how fast
things are changing in Greenland."
And understanding how fast the ice sheet is melting is crucial for us
to prepare for the impact of rising sea levels in the future,
according to Prof King.
According to this year's IPCC report, warming of between 1.5C and 2C
locks in the eventual total deglaciation of Greenland.
This means that eventually, the Greenland ice sheet will cause oceans
around the world to rise by an average of more than 7 metres.
Economic effects of climate change in Alaska
Climate change could be costing Alaska around $340-700m a year -
0.6-1.3% of its gross domestic product (GDP). The largest economic
effects are associated with costs to prevent damage, relocate, and
replace infrastructure threatened by permafrost thaw, sea level rise,
and coastal erosion, the research finds. "This significant, but
relatively modest net economic effect for Alaska as a whole obscures
large regional disparities, as rural communities face large projected
costs while more southerly urban residents experience net gains," the
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