Smokey Greenland Sees Another Summer of Substantial Melt

Smoke From Canadian Wildfires Near Greenland

(Smoke from Record Northwest Territory Wildfires on August 1, 2014 crossing Baffin Bay and the West Coast of Greenland. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

According to our best understanding of paleoclimate, at current greenhouse gas levels of 402 parts per million CO2 and 481 parts per million CO2e, the Greenland Ice Sheet eventually melts out entirely. It’s a level of atmospheric heat forcing we’ve already set in place, a level that keeps rising at a rate of about 2.2 parts per million CO2 and 3 parts per million CO2e each and every year due to our ongoing and reckless carbon emissions. And it’s a level that is already starting to receive substantial additions from destabilizing permafrost carbon together with likely increasing releases from sea bed methane stores.

In this, rather stark, geological, climatological and physical context, we ask the question — is it possible for us to stop a wholesale collapse of Greenland’s ice? And we wonder, how long can the ice sheet last as human greenhouse gas forcings together with ongoing releases from some of Earth’s largest carbon stores continue to rise?

Greenland Jacobshavn July 30 2014

(Extensive melt ponds, Dark Snow on West Face of Greenland Ice Sheet near the Jakobshavn Glacier on July 30, 2014. Extensive darkening of the ice sheet surface, especially near the ice sheet edge, is resulting in more solar energy being absorbed by the ice sheet. Recent studies have shown that edge melt results in rapid destabilization and speeds glacier flows due to the fact that edge ice traditionally acts like a wall holding the more central and denser ice pack back. Notably, the Jakobshavn is currently Greenland’s fastest glacier. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

For ultimately, our ability or inability to rapidly mitigate and then draw down extreme levels of atmospheric greenhouse gasses will provide an answer these key questions. And whether we realize it or not, we are already in a race against a growing Earth Systems response that may eventually overwhelm our efforts, if we continue to delay for too long.

But there’s a lot of inertia in the ice. It represents aeons and aeons of ancient cold locked in great, mountain-high blocks. And its eventual release, which is likely to continue to ramp higher and higher this century, is bound to result in a temporary and weather-wrecking outrush of that cold causing dramatic swings in temperature and climate states to be the rule of the day for Greenland as time moves forward.

Melt Ponds Zachariae Glacier July 25, 2014

(Large melt ponds, extensive surface water over Zachariae Glacier in Northeast Greenland on July 25 of 2014. For reference, the larger melt ponds in this image range from 1 to 4 kilometers at their widest points. The Zachariae Glacier sits atop a deep, below sea level channel that runs all the way to a massive below sea level basin at the center of the Greenland Ice Sheet. This Glacier is now one of more than 13 massive ice blocks that are moving at ever increasing velocity toward the ocean. Image source: LANCE-MODIS)

So we should not expect any melt to follow a neat or smooth trend, but to instead include large variations along an incline toward greater losses. In short, we’ve likely locked in centuries of great instability and variability during which the great ice sheets are softened up and eventually wither away.

Another Year of Strong Greenland Melt

In the context of the past two decades, the 2014 summer melt has trended well above the 30 year average in both melt extent and surface mass losses. Though somewhat behind melt during 2012, 2014 may rank in the top 10 melt years with continued strong melt in various regions and an overall substantial loss of ice mass.

Surface melt extent appears to be overall above 2013 values, ranging well above the 1981-2010 average, but significantly below extents seen during the record 2012 melt:

Greenland Melt Summer 2014Greenland melt 2013

Greenland Melt 2012

(Last three years of surface melt extent with the most current melt graph for the 2014 melt season at the top and the preceeding years 2013 and 2012 following chronologically. Dotted blue line indicates 1981-2010 average. Top three surface melt years in the record are 2012, 2010 and 2007, respectively. Image source: NSIDC.)

Overall, 2014 showed four melt spikes above 35% melt coverage with three spikes nearing the 40% melt extent coverage mark. By contrast, 2013 only showed two such melt spikes, though the later spike was slightly more intense than those seen during 2014. 2012’s 150 year melt, on the other hand, showed melt extents ranging above 40 percent from mid June to early August with two spikes above 60% and one spike above 80%.

Losses of mass at the surface also showed above average melt trends, but with net melt still below both 2013 and 2012:

Greenland Surface Mass Balance 2014

(Greenland surface mass balance trend for 2014 [blue line] compared to mean for 1990 to 2011 [gray line] and record melt year of 2012 [red line]. Image source: DMI.)

2012 was a strong record year and, on average, we’d expect to see the record jump back to lower levels after such a severe event. However, there’s little to indicate that either 2013 or 2014 have bucked the trend of ongoing and increasing surface melt over Greenland. To the contrary, that trend is now well established with yearly surface mass losses now taking place during all but one of the last 13 years. And there is every indication that 2014 will be a continuation of this trend.

Basal, Interior Melt Not Taken Into Account in the Surface Measure

While surface measures are a good measure of melt on the top of the ice sheet, it doesn’t give much of an idea of what’s happening below the first few feet. There, during recent years, sub surface melt lakes have been forming even as warming ocean waters have eaten away at the ice sheet’s base. And since more than 90% of human-caused warming ends up in the world’s oceans even as many of Greenland’s glaciers plunge hundreds of feet into these warming waters, one might expect an additional significant melt to be coming from the ocean-contacting ice faces.

We can see an indication of the severe combined impact of basal, interior and surface melt in the GRACE mass measurements of the Greenland Ice Sheet since 2002. A record that finds a precipitous and increasing rate of decline:

Greenland Cumulative Mass Loss Through Late 2013

(Greenland cumulative mass loss through mid 2013. Data provided by the GRACE satellite gravity sensor. Image source: NOAA.)

It is this ongoing overall mass loss that tells the ice sheet’s full tale. One that now includes an ever-increasing number of destabilized glaciers speeding more and more rapidly seaward.






Nature: Human Warming Now Pushing Entire Greenland Ice Sheet Into the Ocean

Dark Snow

The Arctic Methane Monster Exhales

Large Methane Plumes Discovered on Laptev Continental Slope Boundary




Leave a comment


  1. Germ

     /  August 1, 2014

    How and when do I explain all this to my 10 year old?

    “Our grandchildren are going to hate us!”

    • Tell him that this is what we’ve done and that grandad is going to need a lot of help from his generation to try and set it right.

    • Don’t forget to apologize.

      • Germ

         /  August 2, 2014

        The problem, of course, is that there’s no setting this right, is there? It’s simply too late, and I suspect that most of you here, especially Robert, realizes this deep down.

        Problems can be solved; predicaments can only be endured. And we’re heading into an ecological/climactic storm that is going to be one hell of a predicament.

        At least the folks who read Robert’s excellent posts won’t be surprised by what’s bearing down on us. Unfortunately Guy McPherson may well be correct. Pray that he’s not.

    • Try to improve the odds he exists at all – as most (or many) people will likely die.

      Then try to provide a strategy to recover in the long run, even if it takes multiple generations to fulfill (it really has to fix the underlying problems in our approach to the world at the same time, or it’s a waste of time).

      Been working on this (even without a grandchild, and most of the time no child either) for 7 years now – but all this time trying to discuss it with people has been a waste of words in my experience.

      Frankly, I don’t understand how anyone can look at the evidence of what is happening now, set against the trends – and continue to delude themselves that modern civilisation has any future save violent collapse. Failing to prepare for what is coming is planning to fail, to paraphrase the saying.

  2. wili

     /  August 1, 2014

    Great post, as usual. I’d just like to add to your excellent points that a number of exacerbating (‘positive’) feedbacks are or will soon be kicking in here.

    1. As the snow melts, in many cases it reveals more and more dark particles. (This is especially clear at the periphery, as shown above, where the melt has been greatest every year). The more melt, the more light-absorbing/heat-emanating dark material is exposed to accelerate the melt even more…This is a very direct feedback.

    2. As the ice sheet melts away from the coast, old tundra is uncovered that is full of carbon that is mostly then going to make its way into the atmosphere. This is a less direct feedback.

    3. Eventually, the whole ice sheet will start to shrink fast enough that the height of the whole thing will start to reduce, bringing more and more ice to lower and lower, as so warmer and warmer, altitudes, where they will melt yet faster, and so drop yet faster in altitude…This is a fairly direct feedback, but will probably take a while to have a major effect on the highest parts of the ice sheet.

    There are others, but this is all I have time for right now. Thanks again, and please correct or refine these rough, from-memory ramblings, rs, or anyone knowledgeable about these things.

    • Good points, wili. I often don’t have the space or the time to list all the positive feedbacks as well.

      The only thing really standing in the way is the negative feedback due to ice sheet melt– ocean surface freshening and the iceberg cooling effect. Smoke aerosol is probably net positive. That said, the negative feedback is rather impressive, so long as it lasts. Geologically speaking, probably very brief considering what we’ve unleashed.

      • Dave Werth

         /  August 2, 2014

        One feedback I seldom see mentioned is that as sea level rises it moves the grounding line of ocean terminating glaciers back even further allowing sea water to encroach further than before. It seems like that’s got to speed up those glaciers and melt even more ice.

        • I’ve cited a few reports that mention just this, chiefly during the recent series of glacial demise research coming out late last year and early this year. Definitely worth bringing up.

    • Spike

       /  August 1, 2014

      Robert mentions the fact that sea can encroach deep into the interior of Greenland’s ice sheet, and has previously stated that an ice free Greenland would be an archipelago I seem to recall. I guess this will eventually lead to saddles in the ice cap as accelerated flow of ice down glaciers sucks ice away from the cap. The lowered ice sheet would then be at higher temperatures and melt quicker as well as flowing away. A Bristol paper in 2012 put forward this mechanism as an explanation for the multimeter sea level peaks of the last deglaciation:

      Hansen always warned of the possibility of unknown mechanisms leading to exponential loss, and we seem not to have listened to what Earth’s past indicated was possible.

      Thanks for posting the pictures Robert – that ice looks like a Swiss cheese, and such visible evidence is vital to put in the public domain.

  3. james cole

     /  August 1, 2014

    Forest fire smoke here in N.E. Minnesota was off the charts yesterday! I went out to watch the blazing red sun sink below the green hills. This almost invisible red ball brought back an old memory from watching a sun set in San Diego County during a very bad fire out break back when I was home ported with my ship there. These Alberta fires are a huge distance from here, but I can guess at their size by the thick gray haze, the smell and a sunset just like one in an active fire zone. I talked with an old classmate who now lives in San Diego. He says the California drought has really stuck fear into people, especially real estate developers! Sadly he was a oil company geologist for 30 years, we do not bring up global warming.
    All of us who live in cold climates with 6 month snow covers, know that when the snow begins to melt it quickly becomes grey and black from exposed dirt particles. I can see how Greenland would suffer the same effect with huge positive feedback resulting!

    • There is quite a lot of material coming out of both the NWT fires and those still ongoing in Russia. Cooler weather over NWT may finally be taking the edge off the fires there.

  4. Quite remarkable difference between east and west coast, in darkening terms. Do you think forest fires cause the extra blackening? Of course forest fires have, through the ages, affected the west side more than the east side, and now the AGW exposes all this “old soot”, giving a huge positive feedback.

    Really enjoy your analyses! Thanks a lot!

    • Cheers Lars and thanks for the thoughts! You may well be right. The prevailing wind pattern would favor deposition on the West Coast. That said, the west has also had the strongest surface melt thus far. Warm winds tend to run up from the south in that region and it has received the warmest weather thus far.

  5. Colorado Bob

     /  August 2, 2014

    Satellites Capture Wildfire Smoke Reaching Fragile Arctic Ice

    It’s the height of the Arctic melt season — do you know where your ice is?

    • Good to see you back, Bob!

      Seems more MSM sources are covering climate change. Thank goodness. Not that it’s enough yet.

      About a week or two ago you mentioned that wildfires were creeping closer to the Arctic Ocean on the Russian side. Well, today I have shots of wildfires within 70 miles of Arctic waters.

      Climate Progress also put together an excellent piece on the methane outburst holes today. Joe Romm outdid himself and it appears the tundra researchers are very worried.

      We now also have an official range on predicted Arctic carbon release amplification on top of human emissions — a 10% addition (or about 20 times the current Arctic emission) under full/rapid mitigation, and a 30 % addition this century (x60) under BAU. This is a huge and troubling amplification and all the more reason to get ghg under control.

      In any case, I hope all is well. Best wishes to you!

  6. Colorado Bob

     /  August 2, 2014

    Mysterious holes in Siberia may be craters of climate change explosions

    Maggie Koerth-Baker

    Holes like this one have been appearing in Siberia — at least three are known so far. There are a couple of theories for what’s causing them and both are linked to climate change.

    Which brings us to the other, fairly awesome, possible explanation. Some observers have noted the presence of smoke and flashes of light in the places where the holes appeared. There’s also been some weirdness in the atmospheric science world with spikes of methane turning up in air over Siberia.

    That’s leading some scientists to speculate that the holes could be forming when methane from melted permafrost builds up in a space left by a melting pingo — eventually leading to an explosion.

    • I think they’re zeroing in.

      We’ve been covering this stuff for the better part of 2.5 years. Good to see so much interest now.

  7. Ralph

     /  August 2, 2014

    Off-topic, there is a line of 9 or so lows stretching across the pacific about 10° to 15° North. It’s been there on and off for a few weeks, and has become much more pronounced recently.
    Is this a normal weather pattern? Or related to ENSO? Or just random variability?

    • That is an atmospheric feedback to ocean surface warming at the equator. It also is more likely to occur during summer.

      Been looking at it as well.

      If it continues, and especially if we start to get lows south of the equator, then the El Niño could well be imminent.

      No bets yet, but an interesting pattern worth keeping an eye on.

  8. Greg Smith

     /  August 2, 2014

    I have new respect for Bill Weir of CNN in response the the same old denier drivel about weather forecasting and climate modelling. Below is his tweet with my partial censoring:

    Bill Weir ✔ @BillWeirCNN

    Weather is not climate, you willfully ignorant fu–sticks. MT @foxnation: Climate Doesn’t Cooperate With Al Gore
    10:25 PM – 30 Jul 2014

    He later apologized for the F word but oh must it have felt good…

  9. The official denialist explanation for the Mystery Circles in Siberia is in! Pingos is their explanation ( per Watts et al). They state it has nothing to do with methane, nothing, nada, zero. Because of course to do so would invalidate their claim that the temperature is actually dropping world wide.

    The fact that the methane concentration is 9.7% at the bottom of the hole(s) while the normal methane concentration of air is 0.000179% is not important to these folks. When a pingo deflates there in no ejecta. Nor is there a missing volume of material under where it was on the order of what has been observed.

    These various facts and laws of physics of course are “in” on the big hush-hush secret plot by the scientists, UN, thermometers, lion fish, trees, glaciers, clouds, insects, Greenland, corals etc… because as we all know, migrating fish love a good conspiracy.

    • The ignoramus-sphere has been doing backflips over this one. All a clear sign of their increasing marginalization in the face of base facts.

      The tundra explodes and scientists find methane at high enough concentration to burn. Smoking gun.

    • mikkel

       /  August 2, 2014

      I was surprised at the hostility towards the idea of methane “explosion” at the Arctic Sea Ice forum. Explosion is in quotes because they were focused on whether it actually caught fire and exploded, whereas it is possibly just pressure release. One of the commenters said it was impossible since methane is only flammable at 10% concentration. Now they are measuring 9% even though it’s obviously being vented. Oops.

      It looks like the consensus is starting to come around to methane venting

      • TAIB’s board is actually pretty conservative RE certain issues. Many commenters there have been hostile to the notion of Arctic methane release as a feedback to human warming.

        I have a suspicion that a few of these guys are sleeper deniers. If you look at the ice section, you regularly get people declaring the end of the melt season in late July, or poo, pooing any notion such as upwelling driven surface water warming, the impact of storms on ice during late season, or the impact of surface fresh water as a negative feedback. All this despite growing scientific and direct observational evidence to confirm these forces in action.

  10. Why is the y-axis scale on the last chart in your excellent piece going from plus to minus? If it is cumulative, shouldn’t it start at zero and go negative from there?

  11. Colorado Bob

     /  August 2, 2014

    RS –

    I have been banned for 2 days at WU .

    Never forget I am a jackass . Always poking the truth, This is why we are friends.

    • LOL. Well, you’ll always have a home here, my friend. And never stop poking the truth. It’s what makes you such as badass 😉

    • Do you want me to let a few climate change deniers through so you can beat them up? 😉

      • Colorado Bob

         /  August 2, 2014

        No , but you and I could eat the world ,

        • For now, I’m happy with climate change denier lunch!

          Looks like we have a rather strong hurricane spinning up in the Pacific. They’ve been going north of the Philippines, lately.

        • Damn. Beaufort sea ice looks like it’s in a blender. Weak to moderate storm. One like 2012 crash this ice.

  12. wili

     /  August 2, 2014

    A hole has opened up at about 50 N longitude and 75 latitude. That wasn’t there before, right?

  13. Loni

     /  August 2, 2014

    Re: lose of sea ice in the Arctic in 2012, how much of that lose was due to that large Aug./Sept. storm?

    • I think a great deal. The storm shattered ice that would have taken weeks to melt out. It sent 16 foot swells raging through the ice and pulled both smoke and heat into the Central Arctic. Warm waters beneath the surface were dredged up by winds and cyclonic storm action. This created an aftermath in which the melt effect lasted for weeks.

  14. Rick

     /  August 2, 2014

    Robert, first, thanks for all that you do! Your blogging is unmatched and I am proud that you are a fellow Virginian! Secondly, I just have to be “Captain Obvious” – the freaking basal melt rate is terrifying!

    • Yeah, the GRACE capture is one that will keep you awake at night. Atmospheric warming is a train wreck. But it ain’t got nothing on ocean warming.

  15. Rick

     /  August 3, 2014

    No doubt! Given the anomalous surface and deep ocean heat, I am surprised that we have not started seeing a coral bleaching event this year – sort of like we had in the Indian Ocean during the super El Nino in 98…

  16. And, Dr. Jason Box wants to move to Denmark, lol??

    • wili

       /  August 3, 2014

      I thought the same thing. But, though it’s a peninsula, much of it is considerably above sea level. I think even more important than proximity to sea level is the level of seriousness that a country has about addressing and preparing for sea level rise. One would think that the Netherlands would be the worse place to be in the coming decades. But they are one of the very few countries that has a well worked out plan for how to deal with the now-inevitable sea level rise that is on the way. It is places in the US that are still in deep denial of this basic reality that are likely to be among the most dangerous places to live going forward, imvho. (And not just because of slr.)

  17. Colorado Bob

     /  August 4, 2014

    16:40 UTC
    Smoke from Canadian wildfires over Baffin Bay

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