Record temperatures and massive ice melt in Greenland | Polarjournal
Last week, more than 8 billion tons melted from Greenland’s ice sheet on each of two consecutive days. Photo: Heiner Kubny

Greenland’s ice sheet is melting rapidly again this year – on Wednesday and Thursday of last week alone, a total of nearly 17 billion tons of ice was lost from the surface. This is what scientists report on the Danish information website Polar Portal. The amount would be enough to cover Florida with five centimeters of water. The massive ice loss was caused by the extremely high temperatures that prevailed in parts of Greenland last week. The Danish Meteorological Service reported a temperature of 23.4°C at Nerlerit Inaat Airport in Scoresby Sund, East Greenland, on Thursday, July 29 – the highest ever recorded.  

An area of high pressure is sucking in warmer air from the south like a vacuum cleaner and holding it over East Greenland. That’s how Marco Tedesco of Columbia University explained the cause of the high temperatures to The Guardian. Once the insulating seasonal snowpack melts, the darker core ice is exposed without protection and begins to melt. According to data from Danish scientists, more than 100 billion tons of ice have melted since the beginning of June this year. The meltwater is flowing into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise. At the current rate of melting, it would rise between 10 and 18 centimeters by 2100 – 60 percent faster than previously thought, a study by European scientists reported in December 2020.

Never since records began has the temperature in Eastern Greenland been higher: 23.4°C on 29 July 2021 – about twice as high as normal. Graphic: Danish Meteorological Institute

“It’s a very high level of melting and it will probably change the face of Greenland, because it will be a very strong driver for an acceleration of future melting, and therefore sea-level rise.”

Marco Tedesco, glacier expert at Columbia University and adjunct scientist at NASA

This year’s ice melt has not yet broken the record set in 2019, when 11 billion tons of ice were lost in a single day. But the area affected this year is much larger than in 2019. “It’s hard to say if it will be a record year for melting this year but there is a ton of warm and moist air over the ice sheet that’s causing an amazing amount of melt,” Brad Lipovsky, a glaciologist at the University of Washington, told The Guardian.

The maps illustrate the daily increase and decrease in ice mass at the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet from 28 July in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The blue shades show mass gain, the red shades mass loss, both in millimetres per day. Mass losses due to glacier calving are not included. Graphics: Polar Portal

“The alarming thing to me is the political response, or lack of it. Sea-level rise is like a slow-moving train, but once it gets rolling you can’t stop it. It’s not great news.”

Brad Lipovsky, glaciologist at the University of Washington

If the world’s second largest ice sheet, after Antarctica, were to melt, sea levels worldwide would rise by six meters. Scientists are concerned that Greenland is heading for a tipping point and that the melting will soon be irreversible. Already, ocean currents are changing due to the strong influx of freshwater, and ocean ecosystems are also experiencing changes. Also, the effects of sea level rise are already being felt around the globe in countless coastal cities, which will be at much greater risk of flooding in the years and decades to come.

The maps illustrate the area where at least one millimeter of ice melted at the surface on July 28 in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Graphics: Polar Portal

After the melting season, which in Greenland lasts from June to early September, started out rather cool this year with lots of precipitation and led to a mass increase in the ice sheet, it is now hoped that temperatures will settle back to a lower level and slow down the melting.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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