Greenland’s Ice = 23 Feet of Sea Water

Greenland is the world’s largest island at 2,130,800 sq. km. or 1,323,227 sq. miles. It is nearly ten times larger than Japan, and it is ten times larger than Great Britain. Compared to the U.S.’s largest states, Alaska at 633,267 sq. miles and Texas at 268,580 sq. miles, Greenland is enormous, and it is mostly ice, lots of ice, 1,500 x 500 miles of solid ice. What if Greenland’s ice sheet melts?  And, are people playing Russian roulette with global warming by spewing CO2 into the atmosphere like there is no tomorrow… will there be a tomorrow… after tomorrow?

Things are heating up, according to National Geographic News, 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 8th, when 40% of the melt had already occurred, to July 12th. four days later, 97% of the island’s surface ice had thawed into slush. Most of the thaw occurred in a scant four days time! Son Nghiem of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA explained, “This was so extraordinary that at first I questioned the result: Was this real or was it due to a data error?

Putting this into historical context, according to satellite record keeping, over the past 30 years, on average, only about ½ 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 today, what if the same happens 10 years from today? Will they again be dismayed and shocked, standing waist-deep in water and 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 LA, and au revoir to New Orleans, prompting the largest surge of people inland since Noah’s Arc.

Unfortunately, this past summer’s thaw only scratches the surface of the dilemma surrounding Greenland. Most importantly, and crucial to the ice sheet’s integrity, what happens to the melt lakes formed by surface thaw during the warm season?

Greenland’s Melt Lakes

In the final analysis, what happens deep below the surface during thaws is the biggest risk to losing Greenland sooner rather than later. 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 thus becomes: Does the melt water travel 1-2 miles below to bedrock and serve as a lubricant, slipping n’ sliding the ice sheet’s glide into the ocean, or does the drainage efficiently route the water thru glacial sewers to the ocean without traveling to bedrock, or does the drainage refreeze into the ice sheet?  As of today, the melt lake drainages are considered by scientists to be a wild card for enhancing the ice sheet’s slip n’ slide.

Regardless of whether melt lakes are seriously undercutting the ice from Greenland’s bedrock, new records for melting are occurring this year. 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, Jeanna Bryner, Managing Editor, Live Science, August 15, 2012.

The Impact of Reflectivity of Solar Heat on Ice

The issues associated with ice sheet dynamics are only one set of complications for Greenland. New research raises a different basis for concern, which is reflectivity of solar heat. 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, building upon itself, a self-fulfilling prophecy of bigger thaws and more cascading waterfalls within the colossal ice sheet. 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. “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,” (Greenland Ice Sheet Albedo Feedback: Thermodynamics and Atmospheric Drivers, the Cryosphere, 2012.) This assessment makes mention of an unique feature of global warming, which is this: Over the millennia, climate change is slow; however, there is a tipping point when rapid, dramatic change occurs within decades, not millennia. Thus, prompting the big question: Are we at a tipping point? If so, start making plans way ahead of time to move inland; don’t wait for coastline real estate to drop in price to the value of a fishing license.

Greenland and the Tipping Point

“This month, at the height of the melt season, Greenland’s albedo has fallen off the charts,” according to James Wight, Is Greenland Close to a Climate Tipping Point? Skeptical Science, August 2, 2012. However, it is not yet clear whether this reading of extremely low albedo 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 tonnes of ice over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, over 4.2 trillion tonnes of ice melted worldwide between 2003 and 2010, which is enough ice to cover the entire U.S.A. coast-to-coast 1.5 feet deep, source: NASA’s GRACE-Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment- program, February 25, 2012.

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

“In the last interglacial age 125,000 years ago, called the Eemian, global temperature was only ~1°C 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,” Ibid. Skeptical Science… Aloha Hawaii!

“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,” Ibid, Skeptical Science.

The Big Fix

Fixing this worldwide predicament requires political will similar to America’s determination to place a man on the moon in the 1960s (President John F. Kennedy); throughout the history of America, extraordinary leaders have accomplished extraordinary things. Even though Neil Armstrong (“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” July 21, 1969) did set foot on the moon, my great grandfather swore that Disney staged the moon landing because he believed it was impossible to go to the moon, and he never believed to his passing day. Today, people of high rank in America have a similar problem of not believing in science & engineering. They claim global warming is a Hollywood act or spurious science, people like Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), and ignorant mouthpieces on coast-to-coast talk radio, which brings to mind: Is it acceptable in today’s society, like days of old, to tar and feather miscreants and run them out of town on a rail?

According to sociologists Riley Dunlap (Okla. St. Univ.) and Aaron McCright (Mich. St. Univ.) in The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, August 2011, 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 really, and truly, people out there who advocate more carbon dioxide levels.  According to Mike Ludwig, Truthout, February 15, 2012:

Craig Idso, chairman 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 as follows: Plants and trees love it!

Prompting the question: Does standing water drown plants and trees?

Coming back to reality… whether America’s sacred coastline; e.g., Plymouth Rock, remains as a monument for future generations depends upon the prospective consequences of Greenland’s ice sheet melting, but…much more alarming yet, the risk of underwater coastlines, as described in this article, does not take into account Antarctica, which is 14 million sq. km. or nearly 7 times larger than Greenland. Antarctica 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 24, 2012) recalibrated data, and that recalibration, according to Matt King, 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 conversely too late, a Big Fix may be possible, depending upon how quickly political will takes control over haphazard efforts to go green: Alternative energy resources; i.e., (1) algae fuel, (2) wind turbines, (3) tides, (4) geothermal, (5) electric cars, (6) solar, (7) hydro, and (8) biofuels are already commercially viable and ready for worldwide installation/development…thus, abandoning fossil fuels altogether… with the exception of airplanes and wherever it is  absolutely necessary for industry; thereby, eliminating CO2 similar to how the world effectively 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 obviously for the planet, prompting an economic renaissance of strong growth for the entire world, low unemployment, and a clean, healthy planet, ushering in powerful worldwide economic growth as carbon-based energy is replaced, employing millions upon millions in clean energy conversions on a scale equivalent to sending man to the moon fifty years ago.

But… where’s the political will?

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.