Greenland’s Ice = 23 Feet of Sea Water

Greenland is the world’s largest island at 1,323,227 square miles—1,500 x 500 miles of solid ice. What if Greenland’s ice sheet melts?


Things are heating up, according to the National Geographic News of July 25, 2012: “After just a few days of intense melting this month, nearly the entire surface of Greenland’s massive ice sheet turned to slush, NASA images show—the fastest thaw rate since satellites began keeping score 30 years ago.” Remarkably, from July 8 when 40 percent of the melt had already occurred, to July 12, 97 percent of the island’s surface ice had thawed into slush. Son Nghiem, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explained, “This was so extraordinary that at first I questioned the result.”


Putting this into historical context, according to satellite record keeping, on average, only about one-half of Greenland’s surface thaws in July. However, there is historical precedent, thankfully, for July’s “whopper thaw” as revealed in ice cores of similar melts once every 150 years. Thus, scientists cannot label global warming as the cause—yet. However, an obvious sidebar is that, if scientists are dismayed and shocked at how quickly the icy landscape is changing, what if the same happens ten years from today? Will they again be dismayed and shocked, standing waist-deep in water wearing yellow waterproof waders?


According to scientists, if similar widespread thawing occurs more frequently due to climate change, sea levels could rise up to 23 feet—assuming all of Greenland melts, which is a big assumption—and it would completely submerge London and Los Angeles, and goodbye to New Orleans. Unfortunately, this past summer’s thaw only scratches the surface. What happens to the lakes formed by surface thaw during the warm season?


Greenland’s Melt Lakes


According to Science Daily, “Greenland May Be Slip-Sliding Away Due to Surface Lake Melting,” (April 16, 2012): “Like snow sliding off a roof on a sunny day, Greenland’s Ice Sheet may be sliding faster into the ocean due to massive releases of melt water from surface lakes.” During the warm season, thousands of supraglacial lakes form on the surface of Greenland. The warmer it is, the more melted ice turns to water and slush, resulting in more pressure on the ice and eventually catastrophic lake drainages occur as the ice cracks apart, creating enormous crevasses which drain the melt lakes. Scientists have clocked the sudden rush of water at speeds equivalent to Niagara Falls, completely draining a melt lake within hours.


The question then is what’s next? Does the melt water travel one to two miles below to bedrock and serve as a lubricant, sliding the ice sheet’s glide into the ocean? Does the drainage efficiently route the water through glacial sewers to the ocean without traveling to bedrock? Or does the drainage refreeze into the ice sheet? As of today, scientists consider the melt lake drainages to be a wild card for enhancing the ice sheet’s slide.


Regardless of whether melt lakes are seriously undercutting the ice from Greenland’s bedrock, new records did occur in 2012. Marco Tedesco, assistant professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at The City College of New York, states: “…this year’s overall melting will fall way above old records. That’s a Goliath year—the greatest melt since satellite recording began in 1979” (Melting of Greenland Ice Sheet Breaks 30-Year Record,” Live Science, August 15, 2012).


Solar Heat on Ice


The issues associated with ice sheet dynamics are only one set of complications. New findings indicate sun reflectivity off the ice sheet, particularly at high elevations where snow typically accumulates year-round, has reached record lows, meaning the annual snow fall is melting too quickly to serve as a giant reflector of the sun, as it has done for centuries. Therefore, the ice sheet is absorbing more sun energy, leading to record melt years. According to polar researcher Jason Box of Ohio State University, “In this condition, the ice sheet will continue to absorb more solar energy in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that amplifies the effect of warming.”


Albedo is the scientific term for the amount of radiation from the sun that reflects off the surface and according to Greenland Ice Sheet Albedo Feedback “Thermodynamics and Atmospheric Drivers” (the Cryosphere, 2012): “In the 12 years beginning in 2000, the reduced albedo, combined with a significant increase in downward solar irradiance, yielded an accumulation area net radiation increase…. Another similar decade may be sufficient to shift the average summer accumulation area radiation budget from negative to positive, resulting in an abrupt ice sheet melt area increase.”


The Tipping Point


This month, at the height of the melt season, Greenland’s albedo has fallen off the charts,” according to James Wight in “Is Greenland Close to a Climate Tipping Point?” (Skeptical Science). However, it is not yet clear whether this reading is indicative of a trend because a year with greater snowfall could return albedo to a more normal state. Nevertheless, the recent recordings are cause for concern when considered in the context of Greenland’s ice melting at an accelerating rate, losing over 2 trillion tons of ice over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, over 4.2 trillion tons of ice melted worldwide between 2003 and 2010, which is enough ice to cover the entire U.S. coast-to-coast 1.5 feet deep (NASA’s GRACE-Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment program).


Recent scientific modeling indicates a tipping point for total melting of the ice sheet of global temperatures at around 1.6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while there is another model that has the measurement at a lower range of possibility for a total melt of only 0.8 Celsius—which is equal to today’s global temperature. Hence, it appears that temperatures are already close to the tipping point.


“In the last interglacial age 125,000 years ago, called the Eemian, global temperature was only 1 degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial, i.e., only a couple of tenths of a degree warmer than today. Yet, the poles were several degrees warmer.


There was no summer sea ice in the Arctic and multiple studies using different methodologies indicate sea level was 6-9 meters (20-30 feet) higher, meaning at least partial melting of the Greenland and/or West Antarctic ice sheets.


“All this points to the conclusion we may already be getting close to a dangerous tipping level of global warming. If humanity rapidly cuts global CO2 emissions to zero or near zero, it might be possible to return the Earth to energy balance and prevent much further warming. If business-as-usual emissions continue for much longer, there is a risk that eventual melting of the Greenland ice sheet could become irreversible.”


Climate Denial


Today, people of high rank in America have a similar problem of not believing in science and engineering. Some claim global warming is a Hollywood act or spurious science—such as Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), and ignorant mouthpieces on talk radio.


According to sociologists Riley Dunlap (Oklahoma St. Univ.) and Aaron McCright (Michigan St. Univ.) in The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, climate denialism exists because there has been a long-term, well-financed effort by conservative groups to distort global-warming science: “Contrarian scientists, fossil-fuel corporations, conservative think tanks, and various front groups have assaulted mainstream climate science and scientists for over two decades.”


For example, there are people out there who advocate more carbon dioxide levels. According to Mike Ludwig on Truthout: “Craig Idso, chair of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change and other think tanks, receives $11,600 per month from Heartland. Idso’s study center is funded in part by Exxon Mobile and he recently spoke on the benefits of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting…. The Charles G. Koch Foundation- funded Heartland’s proposed 2012 budget includes $75,000 to develop a ‘Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Classrooms’.” One of their strongest arguments in support of more carbon dioxide levels is that: plants and trees love it.


Much more alarming is the risk of underwater coastlines does not take into account Antarctica, which is roughly the size of the United States and Mexico combined. Ominously, Antarctica has only recently started calving ice flows the size of large cities.


A new satellite survey of Antarctica (Science, October) recalibrated data, and that recalibration, according to Matt King at the University of Tasmania, “…puts the Antarctic’s current contribution to sea level rise at the ‘lower end of the ice-melt spectrum,’ which is a little bit of good news. However, ‘the parts of Antarctica that are losing mass most rapidly are seeing accelerated mass loss and this acceleration could continue well into the future…. The sea level change we’re seeing today is happening faster than it has for centuries with just a small contribution from the massive Antarctic ice sheet. What is sobering is that sea levels will rise even faster if Antarctica continues to lose more ice into the oceans’….”


The Big Fix


Although there is no way for anybody to know if, or when, corrective action is early enough or too late, a fix may be possible, depending on how quickly political will takes control over haphazard efforts to go green. Alternative energy resources, i.e., algae fuel, wind turbines, tides, geothermal, electric cars, solar, hydro, and biofuels are already commercially viable and ready for worldwide installation/development, thus, abandoning fossil fuels altogether—with the exception of airplanes and whatever’s absolutely necessary for industry. This may eliminate CO2 similar to how the world joined together to successfully eliminate chlorofluorocarbons to resolve the ozone hole dilemma in the 1980s.


A worldwide effort to eliminate fossil fuels, as quickly as humanly possible, would be a bonanza for western economies and for the planet, prompting an economic renaissance of strong growth for the entire world, low unemployment, and a clean, healthy planet, ushering in worldwide economic growth as carbon-based energy is replaced, employing millions upon millions in clean energy conversions on a scale equivalent to sending person to the moon 50 years ago. But where’s the political will?



Robert Hunziker lives in California and has published articles in Counterpunch and Firebrand magazine. Photo 2: Ilussat, Greenland.