Faster Greenland ice melt could be unstoppable

The calving front of the Jakobshaven glacier in western Greenland, which has been speeding up for several decades. Image: By NASA ICE (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

A rapid thaw could destroy a whole ice sheet if the faster Greenland ice melt scientists have found spreads across the island.

LONDON, 24 May, 2021 − Researchers say the faster Greenland ice melt affecting part of the island could mean a large area is on the verge of irreversible loss. Their new study shows that the central western region of the ice sheet is near what climate scientists call “a tipping point.”

That is, once the ice starts to slide away, most of it will tip into the sea, to raise global sea levels and potentially to trigger the collapse of the great Atlantic Ocean current that enhances the climate of north-west Europe.

“We have found evidence that the central western part of the Greenland ice sheet has been destabilising and is now close to a critical transition,” said Niklas Boers, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Our results suggest there will be substantially enhanced melting in the future − which is quite worrying.”

Dr Boers and his colleague Martin Rypdal of the Arctic University of Norway report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they looked at data since 1880 of melt rates and ice-sheet altitude shifts of a region called the Jakobshavn basin in the central western region of the northern hemisphere’s biggest single block of ice − a block big enough to raise global sea levels by seven metres, were it all to melt.

And what they saw was something alarming: evidence that surface melting is beginning to accelerate. The conclusion, for now, is tentative.

“It’s high time we dramatically and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels”

“We might be seeing the beginning of a large scale destabilisation, but at the moment we cannot tell, unfortunately,” Dr Boers said. “So far the signals we see are only regional, but that might simply be due to the scarcity of accurate and long-term data for other parts of the ice sheet.”

The region is home to the Jakobshavn glacier, which began to accelerate its flow to the sea this century, but the alarm is consistent with other studies of the mass of ice piled up on Greenland.

For most of the last 10,000 years or so, the summer loss of ice through melt and glacial flow has been replaced by winter snow. But in recent years, other research teams have warned, repeatedly, that the rate of  melting of Greenland’s surface ice has increased, in ways that really could threaten the stability of the entire sheet. Last year, ice loss reached a new record.

Greenland’s ice sheet is high: colder, therefore, at altitude. As the surface melts, the elevation becomes lower, and therefore increasingly warmer. So once the high ground surface begins to melt away, it could reach a level below which there is no obvious reason why the process should stop.

Climate computer simulations predict a threshold of global average temperature change that could, in effect, start a process in which the loss of the entire ice sheet would become inevitable. The loss would happen over hundreds of years, or perhaps thousands, but once begun it would continue inexorably.

Extreme Arctic warming

Global sea levels would rise at ever faster rates, and the arrival of so much fresh water in the north Atlantic would be enough to interfere with the ocean circulation.

For years oceanographers have been warning that the existing current, which takes warm tropical water as far north as the Arctic, could weaken, or fail, with unpredictable and uncomfortable consequences for north European nations.

The only way to stop Greenland’s accelerated melt, once it reaches a critical point, would be to lower the temperature of the whole planet back to that which was normal more than 200 years ago. That is unlikely to happen. Instead, for the moment, the evidence is that average temperatures worldwide could rise by 3°C or more by 2100. The Arctic, however, is likely to become much, much warmer.

“So practically, the current and near-future mass loss will be irreversible,” said Dr Boers, “That’s why it’s high time we dramatically and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and restabilise the ice sheet and our climate.” − Climate News Network