How large is a cubic kilometer? Think of something the size of a mountain. Now multiply that by ten and you end up with a veritable mountain range. Think of it. An entire mountain range of ice. That’s a good rough comparison to the volume of ice lost from just a single Greenland glacier over the course of a mere 26 days from May 7 to June 1 of 2014.
(Massive ice loss from Jakobsbavn glacier captured by Espen Olsen. Image source: The Arctic Ice Blog.)
For according to reports from expert sea ice observer Espen over at the scientist and ice researcher camp that is Neven’s Arctic Ice Blog, about 7.5 square kilometers over an ice face about 1,300 meters tall (when including the above and below sea level ice front) shoved off from the great Jakobshavn Ibrae glacier during the past month. It was a period of time well before peak Greenland warming and one that featured a collapse of ice into the heating ocean even larger than the epic event caught on film during the seminal documentary Chasing Ice.
The Fastest Glacier in Greenland
Flowing at a speed of 46 meters per day, Jakobshavn is currently Greenland’s fastest glacier. Containing enough ice to raise global sea levels by 1.5 feet all by itself, the glacier is one of many of the Earth’s ice giants currently in the throes of irreversible decline.
Human-warmed subtropical Atlantic waters are funneled by ocean currents to the great glacier’s base. There, the high heat capacity does serious harm to the its weak underbelly, resulting in what is now an unprecedented seaward surge.
Since the 1990s, Jakobshavn’s forward rate of motion has tripled. But according to recent scientific reports, the glacier may just be at the start of an exponential spike in velocity. For as the glacier retreats it falls into a deepening chasm that exposes its front to greater and greater volumes of the warming ocean’s waters. The warm waters deliver more heat over the glacial face as it deepens even as a multiplication of melt lakes on the surface of the inland ice provide added lubrication and buoyancy to the ice base flowing into the chasm.
(Greenland map showing location of the Jakobshavn Glacier with close view of a deep channel in the bedrock. This channel was likely carved by previous discharge and at its deepest point is now more than 1,000 meters below sea level. Image source: NASA’s Earth Observatory.)
Estimates of energy transfer from the warming ocean show that Jakobshavn could reach a speed ten times 1990s values over the coming years. Ominously, the past two month’s immense calving event has shoved a large section of glacier closer to what could best be described as a high velocity melt chamber.
Greenland — An Archipelago Covered in Ice
Unfortunately, Jakobshavn is just one of Greenland’s many giant glaciers fronting deep and long chasms stretching far into the ice interior. Recent research from NASA’s Ice Bridge project revealed numerous deep rifts plunging for scores of miles into the ice sheet. The overall picture portrayed by the new study was that of an archipelago island system locked in the grip of two mile high ice mountains and riddled with deep bedrock canyons that join in a low-lying interior basin. A geography in which there is almost nowhere for ice to hide from the severe melting stress of Earth’s human-warmed oceans.
Due to this uniquely vulnerable topography lead Ice Bridge researcher Mathieu Morlighem, a UC Irvine associate project scientist concluded that:
“The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated – and for much longer – according to this very different topography we’ve discovered beneath the ice. This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.”
Human Warming Holds Numerous Large Glacial Collapses in Store
Under the current regime of human-caused climate change, the past month’s massive glacial release is likely only to be one of many. A single event of immense scale that defies imagining. Just one in an ongoing series of violent outbursts we’ve already set lose on our world.
An event of smaller, though still enormous, size was captured on film here:
(Largest glacial calving event captured on film as excerpted from the ground-breaking documentary ‘Chasing Ice.’)
It is a film that gives us some small measure of understanding of what we’ve done and what we continue to to do. For Greenland’s entire ice edge, a region unlocking ice twenty times the volume of Jakobshavn, is now in the process of deformation and collapse all while the massive glaciers of West Antarctica are also falling into irreversible release.
(Hat-tip to Colorado Bob)