Greenland Melting: A Photo Essay

It is nearly a magical sight to wake up to the gentle snowfall on Christmas morning. When the snow is still falling two days later, the magic starts to fade. Eventually, while poking at several inches of ice, buried beneath ten inches of snow, in hopes of finding your car, what was once magic soon becomes kicking and cursing: "&#%!@* MELT ALREADY!"

But that’s the story in Colorado, at least. Elsewhere, say atop the sheet of ice covering Greenland, you might hear similar expletives, with a different tone. "&#%!@* MELT ALREADY!?" Because, as feared, Greenland is melting... but far more quickly than anyone predicted.


Water seeps up through the ice on Greenland.

Before I go into the details on this, I’d like to share my personal perspective. To put it mildly, I’m freaked out by this one. This announcement came as I was preparing for my final exams on climate change. It was eerie for a few reasons... first, it was my university that discovered the early, anomalous melting, around the same time I decided I’d made the right choice in my education. On top of that, I’ve spent the past few months obsessing over predictive science, puzzling over the ways we use models of our climate to predict future conditions. Not just puzzling-the more I understood the powerful accuracy of such predictions, the scarier those predictions seemed.

But here’s the disturbing part-those predictions do not typically include the impacts of large ice sheets like Greenland melting, because the processes involved are not very well understood. (It is a whole lot easier to predict something like the thermal expansion of sea water-ocean warms, ocean expands, sea level rises.) Our models are already on the conservative side. How conservative? Only time will tell.

So, what’s going on with Greenland? According to a recent study by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies at CU Boulder, the extent of melting this past summer was the largest on record.

Professor Konrad Steffen, who has been monitoring Greenland’s melting through a "Climate Network" of 22 stations around the ice sheet, described both the extent of melting and the potential dangers. According to the climate scientist, air temperatures over Greenland have increased by 7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1991.

Seven degrees? This seems like quite a bit... after all, the IPCC projections suggest just two to three degrees of warming over the next century... what’s up with seven in a decade? The important thing to remember here is that the earth does not heat evenly. While the overall global predictions are for a few degrees, that is the average-some areas will face extremes.

i-1b47e2844131c2d66f1ad4985adce203-greenlandmap.jpgGeography plays an important role. The oceans can take quite a bit of heat without changing much, while the land tends to retain the heat, and thereby show more warming. The northern hemisphere has much more land than the southern, so we can expect more warming to occur in the north.

This extreme polar warming has begun to show in both the Arctic Ocean and the Greenland Ice Sheet. Concerning the latter, Professor Steffen explained that even an increase in snowfall is not enough to offset the melting:

Although Greenland has been thickening at higher elevations due to increases in snowfall, the gain is more than offset by an accelerating mass loss, primarily from rapidly thinning and accelerating outlet glaciers, Steffen said. "The amount of ice lost by Greenland over the last year is the equivalent of two times all the ice in the Alps, or a layer of water more than one-half mile deep covering Washington, D.C."

The Jacobshavn Glacier on the west coast of the ice sheet, a major Greenland outlet glacier draining roughly 8 percent of the ice sheet, has sped up nearly twofold in the last decade, he said. Nearby glaciers showed an increase in flow velocities of up to 50 percent during the summer melt period as a result of melt water draining to the ice-sheet bed, he said.

"The more lubrication there is under the ice, the faster that ice moves to the coast," said Steffen. "Those glaciers with floating ice ’tongues’ also will increase in iceberg production."

Rivers of ice, flowing to the sea... in a way, it sounds beautiful, if not ominous:


An iceberg calved from the Jacobshavn Glacier

i-6522681129a8ffab41f0efbc14e9f439-iceflow.jpg The danger isn’t necessarily from an increase in iceberg production, however. Moulins, or round holes where water melts into the ice sheet, can carry water to the base of the ice sheet, and reduce the amount of friction holding the sheet in place.

Steffen and his team have been using a rotating laser and a sophisticated digital camera and high-definition camera system provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to map the volume and geometry of moulins on the Greenland ice sheet to a depth of more than 1,500 feet. "We know the number of moulins is increasing," said Steffen. "The bigger question is how much water is reaching the bed of the ice sheet, and how quickly it gets there."

So, what if Greenland melts? Here are some bare facts:

  • Greenland is about one-fourth the size of the United States.
  • Approximately 80% of Greenland’s surface area is covered in ice.
  • Greenland hosts about one-twentieth of the world’s ice.
  • Greenland’s melting contributes about 0.5 millimeters annually to global sea levels.
  • The ice on Greenland, if melted, would be roughly equivalent to 21 feet of global sea rise.

Even Professor Steffen agrees that IPCC predictions may have been too modest:

The most sensitive regions for future, rapid change in Greenland’s ice volume are dynamic outlet glaciers like Jacobshavn, which has a deep channel reaching far inland, he said. "Inclusion of the dynamic processes of these glaciers in models will likely demonstrate that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment underestimated sea-level projections for the end of the 21st century," Steffen said.

So, we may have underestimated the rise in sea level. What other changes in precipitation and temperature will show sooner than expected? I’ll leave you to ponder that-I have to go shovel more snow.

Image credits: "Soaked through" image via the National Geographic Photo Store; map of Greenland via The Daily Green; Jacobshavn Iceberg via ABC news; Greenland moulin via the Earth Observatory.


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"A 6m sea level rise is much farther off. Most pessimistic estimates of GIS (an ice sheet containing about 5m of sea level rise equivalent) melting by climate scientists are in the 'low centuries'." (comment on 18 September)

Pessimistic indeed! 21 feet is 6.4m actually. I wonder how the world's coastlines will look by then. Pity Google Earth's new version doesn't give us this option. They should add it to the new "Global Awareness" option, along with data on the population affected.

It's hard to avoid freaking out thinking of all the implications without becoming cynical.

Well that means a holiday in Tahiti before it is beneath the waves, along with most other Pacific islands.

Bye bye Bangdladesh and most of the major Indian coastal cities (Mumbai, Chennai etc) so that's a few 100 millions of displaced people on its own and most of Kerala gone as well, as well as a lot of Pakistan.
Bye bye Shanghai, Macao and Hong Kong and all the low land cities beside the Yellow River and Yangtze

Where I am and a lot of Eastern KSA all gone (need to find another place to work)

Oh yes most of lowland Scotland away wie the fishies, have to find out how high up my home is, along with East Anglia.

Plus the Rift Valley in Africa, lots of the Sahara and, of course, bye bye Netherland, no more coffee shops.

A lot of the Amazon Jungle, most of Argentina etc..

Interesting times.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 28 Dec 2007 #permalink

Although the projected total sea level rise of 5m-6m from a complete melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet may well be "centuries off", what's important to remember is the lateral incursion of sea water on shorelines. This can be significant even at much lesser increases in sea level, depending on the slope of the shore.

Where I live in Maine, the slope is about 4:1, so the impact of a even a 12" increase in sea level would mean only about a 4-foot incursion on the shore line. However, in places around Chesapeake Bay, South Florida and NOLA, where the slope is sometimes 2000:1, a 12" increase in sea level (which may not be all that far in the future) would mean a shoreline incursion of 2000 feet in some places - with significant disruptive impacts on ecosystems, port facilities, fresh water aquifers, recreational areas and waterfront residences and businesses. This would likely be sufficient to at least begin to cause some significant social/economic disruptions from human migrations, and the faster such an event transpires (perhaps as quickly as a few years), the less manageable the consequent disruptions would be. And that's just in the US.

By Steve Warren (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink

The rate of change is accelerating, changing at an increasing rate of change. One way to model it is as an exponential curve.

If the period it takes to double the change is half as long each time we look at it, then the acceleration or change in the rate of change is going to be not just rapid but increasing toward instantaneous. Put a piece of ice in a frying pan and turn the stove on, at some point it boils.

.5 mm this decade, 1 mm in the next five years after that,

2 mm in the next 30 months, 4 mm in the next 15 months, 8 mm in the next 30 weeks, 16 mm in the next 15 weeks,32 mm in the next 52 and a half days, 64 mm in the next 26 days,
128 mm in the next 13 days, 256 mm in the next week, 512 mm in the next 36 hours 1024 mm in the next 18 hours, 2 meters in the next 9 hours, 4 meters in the next 4 1/2 hours.

In the last 10 years .5 mm no big deal
In the next 5 years a total of 1.5 mm still no alarm bells
in the next 10 years Greenland is melted

By Steve Whittet (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink

I bet those people freezing to death and skidding off
highways and dying due to snow and ice could sure go for some
"global warming".Maybe Siberia could grow more crops.Follow the money.algore is a disgraced clown.What happened to all the
ice ages before man?

By bill e rubin (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink

wonderful piece. And....I know this kind of shallow for such a serious piece, but you should consider provide the photos at large enough size for people to use as their wallpaper. They are beautiful. Good desktops for students of climatology :)

It sounds like in the last hours of melting there is going to be a huge tidal wave. And what about the huge mass displacement? If it affects plate tectonics, Iceland could be seriously affected. I don't know if this goes too far, but is anybody double-checking Charles Hapgood's calculations?

@Bill E Rubin:

"Follow the money"? Good advice. Why dont you look at who's funding the climate contrarians, and how much money Exxon-Mobil et al. are dumping into the effort, because it will surely dwarf whatever sh*t pay most climatologists get as they sit in their 2-room shacks in the arctic circle measuring ice cores. Any well-known climatologist who really was in it for the money knows they can make far more money as a shill for the Exxon-Mobils of the world, because they would pay a premium to get a respected scientist on board their efforts to lend it a veneer of legitimacy.

Bill E Rubin:
Who gives a crap what happened "to all the ice ages before man?" They could have wiped out a hundred Floridas or DCs and no one would have cared (since we weren't there). Sticking our heads in the sand and living on hope won't cut it. Ever hear of "a stitch in time", or any of the other saws and sayings apropo to the problem? Maybe global warming is a transient event that is purely natural and will just go away, but what if it isn't? What then? Lock the barn door after the horse has melted?

By tumblebug (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink

Isn't it great that Greenland is finally warming up again! Maybe it will warm up enough to support a self-sustaining colony, growing grapes or some other crop, as it did during Leif Erickson's time. Maybe someday, if we don't prematuraly eliminate the human infestation of Mother Earth, we may learn to totally control our environment (including the sun) and we can do away with all these messy cyclical environmental patterns that have been going on for thousands of years.

Why does all this remind me of the 'Chicken Little" story?

bindare,well said!
The follow the money does not just refer to research,it's
algores 100 million dollars made with the biggest scam since
1 hour martenizing.
Thank I'll turn on another light and start the 15 mpg van and
let it idle.
Carbon offsets? Oh,I have money so I can pay to pollute says

The earth is not my mother!

By bill e rubin (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink

Bonus points to Chris' Wills for pointing out that the effects of climate change will hit the developing world the hardest. (With the links, your comment got held up in moderation. I'm sorry about that!)

bill e rubin, go ahead and turn on your lights and idle your van. (You're the one who has to sit saturated in the stale fast-food aroma that often permeates such vehicles.) Others will probably offset what you're doing, not to spite Al Gore, but to save a few dollars investing in energy efficiency.

The fact is, we aren't really relying on you to save the planet. Sorry. What we are relying on are large scale changes in the way we produce energy. That isn't going to mean we're throwing you back to the stone age--what it means is that we're going to invest in carbon neutral solutions (like burning biomass and sequestering the excess carbon by putting it back into the oceans, using carbon-free energy from geothermal, wind, solar, and nuclear power, and finding ways to build more efficient cars and machines.) Unless you're the CEO of an energy corporation, these aren't really decisions you'll have to make.

To be perfectly honest, I don't put a whole lot of faith in offsets... BUT they are at least getting the issue out there, and offering the motivation to find carbon neutral solutions. While you pay to pollute, someone else is motivated to clean up their act for the extra profits.

Edwin, I usually do hotlink the images, even in a serious piece... I was just in a hurry to get this one up. The links should work now.

Karmen,you are correct that using geothermal,wind,solar and nuclear are wise.I have property in San Luis Valley that will require alternate energy sources.

I dispute that people aren't looking for individuals to do "their" part.It's always save one car trip,save one roll of toilet paper etc...And if you want to do that,fine,stop telling me!

I compost as I have for over 40 years,but don't have the government tell me to!That's what turns a lot of people off.I do that because I know it helps.

And no,can't remember the last time I was in a fast food place.That's not the Altzheimers talking either.

Just a thought,aren't we in a drought period,let's use this
global warming H2O,that's water in case your wondering.

By bill e rubin (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink

No problem about the moderation, makes sense to check comments with lots of links.

I abhor the idea of offsets, seems immoral to me that rich people don't have to modify their profligate lifestyles and also lets companies avoid cleaning up their act.

As I actually work for one of those nasty extraction companies (Gas) I do take exception to Philips snide remark about Exxon-Mobil et al. Not all producers are bad, they produce a major world resource without which very little will move.
Yes alternatives are being developed, guess which companies are putting the most into research Philip.
Not all Oil/Gas companies are argueing against global climate change; most, like the one I presently work for, spend a lot on environmental initiatives.

bill e rubin; you are correct, the world isn't your mother.
Doesn't imply that you shouldn't be careful of it, which I think you probably are. I also agree that having politicians say one thing and do another is annoying, Al Gore springs to mind in that regard.

The link is just for fun

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 29 Dec 2007 #permalink

Thanks Karmen,
The pictures are as you said, beautiful, but ominous! In discussions with others about climate change I try to get past, is it man or nature as quickly as possible to get to the fact it is happening and what can we do about it! My favorite example is the Greenland ice. You can easily look at the ice over the last few years and decades and see that something radical is going on here! I also point out that the big movie, The Day after Tomorrow, could actually happen if enough fresh water gets dumped into the ocean up there.
Thanks again and keep up the great job!
Dave Briggs :~)

Saw a thing on Science Daily which said increased Iceland icecap melting was due to a geothermal hotspot under the icecap rather than totally connected to global warming.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 10 Jan 2008 #permalink

Saw a thing on Science Daily which said increased Iceland icecap melting was due to a geothermal hotspot under the icecap rather than totally connected to global warming.
Posted by: Jim Thomerson

Not suprising as Iceland is the land of Fire & Ice; an actual creation from a Ginnungagap variant, though split East/West not North/South.

Iceland is a creation of the mid-Atlantic ridge.

Greenland is a lot bigger and sits on a stable plate and is not known to be subject to any thermal hotspots in the mantle.

P.S. I do know that the real Ginnungagap is a yawning void with Fire to the south and Ice to the North. Iceland seems to be Fire below and Ice above, so an odd variant configuration.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 11 Jan 2008 #permalink

algore will probably still blame the USA,can he be deported ?
There's a reason it is called GREENLAND!wake up people!

By bill e rubin (not verified) on 12 Jan 2008 #permalink

There's a reason it is called GREENLAND!wake up people! Posted by: bill e rubin

Yes there is, it was a PR stunt by Erik the Red to entice settlers to come, as related in the sagas.

Though it was actually warmer then than now Greenland was hardly a lush paradise.
Southern Greenland has always had farms and in Summer is green and pleasant, now potatoes are being grown so the change in climate may have some benefits for the Greenlanders until the sea level rises and floods the farms.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 12 Jan 2008 #permalink

One aspect of the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet that could have catastrophic consequences even within the next decade is an ateration of the Gulf Stream.

The Gulf Stream depends on temperature and salinity gradients to drive water to the ocean floor in the north Atlantic. If the Greenland ice sheet melts rapidly enough to alter the salinity, the Gulf Stream could stop flowing over the course of one or two years.


The loss of the Gulf Stream would mean massive and immediate climatologic change to most of Europe. Northern Europe could wind up being uninhabitable due to cold while the rest of the world heats up.

Thanks for the photo essay. If you have time look at the photo essays at
Very similar in some cases :) We need more discussion of this and more action - political action - to change the situation. This does not mean flying to Bali for useless talks; it means 'energy soveriegnty' and 'food sovereignty' and independance from the mass culture and its toxics and indoctrination. It also means a total rejection of the lies of this mass culture of death and constant lobbying for truth and life.

I've read that the melting in Greenland might actually be due to geothermal heat. Google "Geothermal Greenland". Besides, the Arctic ice has grown 30% in the last year, and Antarctic ice is the greatest it's been since measurements began in 1979. Also world temperature has risen 1 deg C since 1998.

Strange, they look correct to me. I checked in a few different browsers. It sounds like there is some sort of database error that is misdisplaying for only some readers. Weird, and worth checking out. (I sort of like the idea of being able to suggest Dave was the one who typed "condiments" instead of "continents")