Elena Liciu looks closer at the report of Greenlands record-breaking ice loss and the reasons why.
Photo by Annie Spratt
2019 marked record high melting rates for Greenland’s ice sheets. Satellite data shows 96% of the ice sheets in the country underwent melting, resulting in 532 billion tonnes of ice being lost throughout the year, equivalent to a million tonnes every minute.
This amount of ice loss is double the normal levels previously recorded, and is extremely concerning because it contributed to raising global sea levels by 1.5 millimetres. Despite not sounding like a significant change, this water increase would be enough to fill 218.8 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Scientists fear that if no regulatory measures are put in place, the drastic increase of melting rates will only accelerate, with estimates being made that the Greenland ice sheets will be completely lost in a matter of centuries.
Rising Water Levels
NASA scientist Alex Gardner labelled ice cap loss as having ‘huge’ global effects. He explained that rising sea levels will have a catastrophic impact on our planet. As ice continues to melt and feed more freshwater into our oceans, the risk of inland flooding increases.
Coastal flooding will inevitably lead to the tragic loss of thousands of people, as well as completely destroying millions of homes. Low-lying terrestrial land, such as the Maldives, face a greater level of threat because small changes to sea level run the risk of full terrestrial land submersion rather than just flooding.
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Furthermore, rising sea levels are likely to provoke severe harm to the environment. This damage comes in the form of ecosystem collapse as many habitats will be destroyed, thus making some animal species endangered. Agricultural land will also be impacted and likely made barren by salt saturation.
To prevent this from becoming a reality, the melting of the Greenland ice sheets needs to be slowed. Geoscientist Ingo Sasgen has outlined that the way to approach this is through tackling global warming, which he believes to be the prime cause of this disaster.
It is theorised that the increase in the planet’s atmospheric temperature creates distinct areas of high pressure above land, known as weather blocking patterns. Such ‘blocks’ hold warm air above the ice sheets for longer periods of time than would naturally occur, thus accelerating the rate at which the ice below them melts. Satellite data shows that as Greenland’s atmospheric temperature increases, more blocking patterns appear, and more ice melts. This effect was exacerbated by low snowfall in Greenland, leading to unusually extreme net ice loss in 2019.
The Effects of Warming
The weakening of the Gulf Stream System is also thought to be responsible for aggravating Greenland’s ice loss. The system simply represents water movement from the warm Atlantic towards the much cooler North. The system relies on water cooling and sinking, as well as a specific salt concentration to facilitate mass water movement, but this system has been weakening in recent years. This manifest itself by affecting weather patterns.
Heatwaves become more frequent, as experienced in Greenland where costal temperatures have increased by 1.7 degrees since 1991. Furthermore, the East Coast of America faces faster sea level rises whilst regions of Africa is confronted by increased drought, both due to heatwaves.
At the moment, the system is 15% weaker compared with its strength in 1950, making it the weakest it has been in 1600 years. As the system continues to weaken, it will reinforce this negative feedback loop in which ice melting is continuously reinforced.
Hope is not lost, as experts declare that Greenland’s ice sheet can be restored, simply by reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. If we are able to slow our Earth’s increasing core temperature, we will be able to prevent any further dramatic ice melts to stop rising sea levels and protect Greenland’s wildlife diversity.
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