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Greenland Ice Sheet Melting Faster Than Predicted

greenland icesheet melting fast

According to climate projections, the present day rate at which Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at wasn’t suppose to happen until 50 years from now. Meaning that the worst case scenario for Greenland’s ice melt that was predicted to happen in the year 2070… is happening right now.

In 2019, the Greenland ice sheet lost 55 billion tons of water in only 5 days which resulted in enough to affect sea level rise. Temperatures that year reached 40 degrees Fahrenheit above normal (4.4 Celsius higher than average). The only other time we saw the Greenland ice sheet lose this much ice was in 2012 where temperatures in Greenland reached record levels and 197 billion tons of water melted into the Atlantic (enough to raise global sea levels by 1/2 a millimeter) which had set an unprecedented historic record for Greenland. At one point 97% of the Greenland ice sheet was melting. This rapid melt rate of the glaciers had caused Greenland’s ice sheets to be full of lakes.

Why the Greenland Ice Sheet is Melting so Quickly

The amount of Co2 humans are emitting into the atmosphere is at the highest rate in known history. Since 1578 BCE (which was 3,596 thousand years ago) the global Co2 ppm (parts per million) has averaged around 279 ppm up until 1820’s which was the height of the industrial revolution. Climate scientists have the numbers for average Co2 levels from ice core samples taken from Antarctica where those gases were frozen in time.

We saw a very sharp rise of Co2 in the early 1900’s pushing levels over 300ppm. Then it happened again the mid 1960’s. Co2 levels began ramping up and today, we have reached Co2 levels of over 408ppm.

Here is where we begin seeing a compound effect. Co2 gets added to the atmosphere rapidly heating things up, ice and permafrost melts as a result, the ground now absorbs more heat and emits stored Co2. This exponentially causes the Earth to heat up much faster. What compounds it even further is even more Co2 is emitted as a result of burning of forest fires around the planet in places like Australia, Russia and the Amazon… which are being caused by or made much worse because of climate change.

In 2019, 55 billion tons of water left Greenland over the course of 5 days. Then at Greenland’s highest point (which is 3,000 meters above sea level) reached temperatures above zero degrees. A Danish climate scientist Dr. Martin Stendel really puts our situation with Greenland’s ice sheet into perspective. He stated that in the past 2,000 years only 7 times have events like this happened… 2 of them happened in the past decade.

Summary of what is causing of Greenland’s Ice Sheet melt:

  1. Massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions (causes the Earth to heat up). This is mainly carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.
  2. Receding ice leads to exposed oceans and exposed darker land mass (causes the Earth to absorb more heat instead of reflecting sunlight).
  3. A hotter Earth from ice melt means more forest fires globally… which in turn heats up the Earth even more causing the ice to melt faster.

What Scientists are Doing to Monitor the Greenland Glacier

The reason that scientists are doing so much to study Greenland’s glaciers is that the ice packs in both hemispheres are sensitive to changes on the Earth. So what happens here is an alert to changes that will happen around the world. The melting glacier in Greenland already ads more than 250 billion tons of fresh water to the Atlantic ocean every year. This not only ads to sea level rise but destabilizes the ocean currents in the Atlantic .

Researchers at Princeton and MIT have developed a way to use seismic waves to detect differences in ice. Seismic waves may be better used to measure the density levels in certain areas of the ice sheets while differences in the ice, like elevation changes, are being recorded by new satellite technology.

In 2018 NASA launched ICESat-2 which has an advanced laser altimeter that can measure elevation changes in Greenland’s ice sheets in great detail. The laser is so precise that we can measure changes to the ice sheet elevations within a fraction of a centimeter. This will give climate scientists access to the most accurate data for creating climate projection models and help us understand in finer detail what is happening in Greenland and Antarctica.

While we’re progressing with technology to help us understand whats happening with climate change, climate scientists are also using more “manual methods” by doing flights over Greenland Glaciers to conduct radar images and compare them to prior years. This also gives them a look inside of the Glaciers. By mapping the layers of ice with penetrating radar they can see into the past of the glaciers history similar to looking at rings of a tree.

One of the primary data sets climate scientists monitor and compare is “snow fall versus ice mass lost”. If Greenland has more snow fall than ice that was lost that year, the glaciers can start to grow. If there was more ice lost than there was snowfall that season, then the glacier is receding. But in order for there to be considerable growth of a glacier, snow pack has to happen for a hundred years or more. But for decades we have seen kilometers of the ice sheet disappear and its happening at a much faster rate.

Greenland Ice Sheet is not Growing

Contrary to some reports the Greenland ice sheet is not growing. Josh Willis, who is an ocean scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and primary investigator behind (OMG) Oceans Melting Greenland mission, explains that Greenland’s ice sheet is like silly putty.

“Pull it from one end and it stretches and gets thinner, or squash it together and it gets thicker”

Josh Willis – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

What happens is that the temperature of the ocean greatly determines the rate at which the ice sheet melts. So as the temperature of the ocean cools periodically, this slows down the rate of ice melt into the ocean. As the ice sheet slows… it then starts to grow vertically. So its not that the ice sheet is growing but shifting mass. Data collected in early 2019 confirmed that for 3 years (2016-2019) the ocean temperature slowed the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and allowed it to “thicken” instead of receding. But no ice pack was actually gained.

jakobshavn glacier ice sheet melting

Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG)

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created a mission called Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) where they will monitor the water temperature surrounding Greenland and study how the ocean’s temperature affects the melting ice sheets. This will help us to more accurately predict the future of Greenland and the future of global sea level rise. These changes will affect the future of human life on Earth.

Greenland Ice Sheet Today

The National Snow & Ice Data Center has resumed image updates of the Greenland ice sheet status in April of 2020. The largest ice sheet loss happened in recent years which is not great news. This means that we are losing more ice at a faster rate than ever before and it only seems to be increasing faster than predicted due to the compound effects.

With the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic Ice Sheet being indicators of the current status of global warming, its more important than ever to keep an eye on the amount of ice being lost and the rate at which they’re melting. The spring 2020 updates (which happen annually) of the Greenland ice sheet melt will give us proper feedback data on the state of global warming. If we see positive signs from the data, we know that we are on the right track in reducing greenhouse gases. If the data shows us that Greenland’s glaciers are melting even faster than before… we have to come down hard on greenhouse gas emissions.

We won’t know until 2021 when the data is published what affects the Corona virus had on the global climate in 2020. From satellite imagery, we are already seeing a massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. These are mostly nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide which come from fossil fuel powered cars and the manufacturing industry. This goes to show that if we really wanted to, we can shift what kind of energy the world uses in a short period of time. This is exactly what the world needed evidence of. That we can make a difference in climate change.

Greenland Ice Sheet Melting is Affecting Global Sea Levels & Weather

greenland ice sheet sea levels
Greenland Sea Level Rise Photo by William Bossen

Since the early 1900’s, the world’s ocean levels have raised almost 8 inches (20 centimeters). More than half that amount was in the past 8 years which indicates that sea level rise is happening at an exponential rate.

While this seems like an event that is happening on the other side of the planet… this is an event going on right now that is effecting the world. Coastal communities everywhere on Earth will be feeling this for decades if not hundreds of years. Coastal countries are already feeling the damage being caused by changes in annual floods.

On top of the flooding, we are seeing a stark difference in weather patterns and the intensity of storms every season. Recently they had to consider the creation of a new category of hurricane, … all of this is partly due to the 1mm of sea level rise that happens every year that very few consider the impacts of.

The period of acting damage lasts so long that things we are doing right now, if we stopped all at once today, would continue to do damage to the climate for months or years. This is why so many climate scientists say we have to act now before its too late.

What the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet points out is the importance and weight of the situation. The context of the situation is not “there’s nothing we can do” the context of the situation is “the things we are doing right now have to change”. There are 3 key things that are causing climate change. Co2 from the transportation industry, Co2 from the manufacturing industries and Co2 from electricity production. If we fix those 3 things, we can start controlling the direction of climate change. We may even see ice pack being added to the melting Greenland ice sheet if global temperatures begin to drop.


Jacob Haust

With a passion for design, electric vehicles, engineering and the environment, Jacob is combining his interests to help make the world a more sustainable place for generations to come.

jacob haust


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