At the summit of the Greenland ice cap — 3,216 meters (10,551 feet) above sea level — temperatures are usually so cold that rain never falls. Any precipitation comes in the form of snow, which adds to the ice cap. The US National Science Foundation maintains a research facility at the peak to monitor changes to the ice cap. Last week, its scientist were surprised to find it was raining outside. That has never happened in recorded history, which is why the station had no rain gauges to measure the amount of precipitation, according to a report by The Guardian.
Ted Scambos, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, which reported the summit rain, told CNN, “What is going on is not simply a warm decade or two in a wandering climate pattern. This is unprecedented. We are crossing thresholds not seen in millennia and frankly this is not going to change until we adjust what we’re doing to the air.”
The rain was caused by an upwelling of warm air that parked over the ice cap because of weather disturbances offshore. As a result, air temperatures over Greenland were as much as 18º C higher than normal. For those stuck with using the Fahrenheit scale, that means if it is normally 80° outside your window, it would suddenly be 112°. Such blocking events are not unusual but they are becoming more common, the researchers say. In all, it is estimated more than 7 billion tons of rainwater inundated Greenland last week and melting occurred over an area four times larger than the UK.
A study published in the journal Nature in 2019 found that the rate of ice melting in Greenland is greater today than at any time since the end of the Holocene Era, otherwise known as the Ice Age, and is accelerating.
Jason Briner, a professor of geology at the University of Buffalo and lead author of the paper, told The Guardian after the study was published, “We have altered our planet so much that the rates of ice sheet melt this century are on pace to be greater than anything we have seen under natural variability of the ice sheet over the past 12,000 years.”
He adds, “Before our study, science did not have a great handle on the long term trends of the rate of Greenland ice loss. Very meticulous work has been done to quantify today’s rates of ice mass loss on Greenland, but we did not have a long term view to put today’s rates into perspective. Our study provides that perspective.”
Greenland’s ice sheet shrank between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago, but has been slowly increasing over the past 4,000 years. The current melting will reverse that pattern and within the next 1,000 years, if global heating continues, the vast ice sheet is likely to vanish altogether. If it does, sea levels will rise by approximately 6 meters (20 feet), wiping out most of the world’s major cities.
It might take thousands of years for all the ice to melt, but in the meantime, melting of the Greenland ice sheet could see ocean levels rise by as much as 200 centimeters by the end of this century. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise strongly, the rate of melting could accelerate to four times faster than at any time in the past 12,000 years.
“We are increasingly certain that we are about to experience unprecedented rates of ice loss from Greenland, unless greenhouse gas emissions are substantially reduced,” wrote Andy Aschwanden, of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in a commentary accompanying the study in Nature. That study found the melting trend set in motion through human activity will be next to impossible to reverse, even if substantial cuts in emissions are achieved.
For some, it is hard to visualize changes that may take centuries or even millennia to occur, so we here at CleanTechnica have devised a way to demonstrate those changes. Think of it as time lapse photography from the future. There is no charge for this service, although we did have to dip into our budget for the annual CleanTechnica Labor Day weenie roast to bring this too you. Our readers always come first.
And while we are being lighthearted about this, the news is actually quite serious. Weather events that haven’t happened in 12,000 years are happening now, thanks to our inability to care for our earthly home. Chances are, this isn’t going to end well. The finale will be all about finger pointing and trying to pin the blame on somebody. But as the Rolling Stones tried to tell us, “When after all it was you and me.”
Related story from one year and three days ago: Greenland Ice Sheet Melting “Passed the Point of No Return.”