(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?
(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.
(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:
(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 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 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.