This is where Earth’s refrigerator door is left open, where glaciers dwindle and seas begin to rise. New York University air and ocean scientist David Holland, who is tracking what’s happening in Greenland from both above and below, calls it “the end of the planet.” In many ways, this place is where the planet’s warmer and watery future is being written.
It is so warm here, just inside the Arctic Circle, that on an August day, coats are left on the ground and Holland and colleagues work on the watery melting ice without gloves. In one of the closest towns, Kulusuk, the morning temperature reached a shirtsleeve 10.7 degrees Celsius.
The ice Holland is standing on is thousands of years old. It will be gone within a year or two, adding yet more water to rising seas worldwide.
Summer this year is hitting Greenland hard with record-shattering heat and extreme melt. By the end of the summer, about 440 billion tonnes of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet, estimate scientists. That’s enough water to flood the country of Greece about 35 centimetres deep.
In just the five days from July 31 to August 3, over 58 billion tonnes melted from the surface.
That’s over 40 billion tonnes more than the average for this time of year. And that 58 billion tonnes doesn’t even count the huge calving events or the warm water eating away at the glaciers from below, which may be a huge factor.
One of the places hit hardest this hot Greenland summer is the giant frozen island: Helheim, one of Greenland’s fastest-retreating glaciers, has shrunk about 10 kilometres since 2005.
Several scientists, such as Nasa oceanographer Josh Willis, who is in Greenland studying melting ice, says what’s happening is a combination of man-made climate change and natural but weird weather patterns. Glaciers here do shrink in the summer and grow in the winter, but nothing like this year. Summit Station, a research camp nearly 2 miles high (3,200 metres) and far north, warmed to above freezing twice this year for a record total of 16.5 hours. Before this year, that station was above zero for only 6.5 hours in 2012, once in 1889 and also in the Middle Ages.
This year is coming near but not quite passing the extreme summer of 2012 — Greenland’s worst year in modern history for melting. “If you look at climate model projections, we can expect to see larger areas of the ice sheet experiencing melt for longer durations of the year and greater mass loss going forward,” said University of Georgia ice scientist Tom Mote. “There’s every reason to believe that years that look like this will become more common.”
A Nasa satellite found that Greenland’s ice sheet lost about 255 billion tonnes of ice a year between 2003 and 2016, with the loss rate getting worse over that period. Nearly all of the 28 Greenland glaciers that Danish climate scientist Ruth Mottram measured are retreating.
“It takes a really long time to grow an ice sheet, thousands and thousands of years, but they can be broken up or destroyed quite rapidly,” says Holland. According to Willis by the year 2100, Greenland alone could cause 3 or 4 feet of sea level rise.
So it’s crucial to know how much of a role the air above and the water below play. In this remote landscape, sound travels easily for miles. Every several minutes there’s a faint rumbling that sounds like thunder, but it’s not. It’s ice cracking.
In tiny Kulusuk, Mugu Utuaq says the winter that used to last as much as 10 months when he was a boy can now be as short as five months. That matters to him because as the fourth-ranked dogsledder in Greenland, he has 23 dogs and needs to race them. They can’t race in the summer, but they still have to eat. So Utuaq and friends go whale hunting with rifles in small boats.
“People are getting rid of their dogs because there’s no season,” said Yewlin, who used to run a sled dog team for tourists at a hotel in neighboring Tasiilaq, but they no longer can do that. The melting glaciers, less ice and warmer weather are noticeable, said Kulusuk Mayor Justus Paulsen. It means more fuel is needed for boats to get around.
But Holland looks out at Helheim glacier from his base camp and sees the bigger picture. And it’s not good. “Not for here. Not for Earth as a whole,” he says.
— SETH BORENSTEIN
Funeral for Ice
It was a funeral for ice. Icelandic geologist Oddur Sigurdsson pronounced the Okjokull glacier extinct about a decade ago. But on August 18, he brought a death certificate to the made-for-media memorial. After about 100 people made a two-hour hike up a volcano, children installed a memorial plaque to the glacier, now called just “Ok,” minus the Icelandic word for glacier.
The glacier used to stretch 16 square kilometres. Residents reminisced about drinking pure water thousands of years old from Ok. “The symbolic death of a glacier is a warning to us, and we need action,” former Irish president Mary Robinson stressed.
This was Iceland’s first glacier to disappear. But Sigurdsson said all of the nation’s ice masses will be gone in 200 years. “We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir said. “We have no time to lose.”
The plaque, which notes the level of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, also bears a message to the future: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” In 1890, the glacier ice covered 16 square kilometres but by 2012, it measured just 0.7 square kilometres.
To have the status of a glacier, the mass of ice and snow must be thick enough to move by its own weight. For that to happen, the mass must be approximately 40 to 50 metres thick, he said.
According to a study published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in April, nearly half of the world’s heritage sites could lose their glaciers by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate. Sigurdsson said he feared “that nothing can be done to stop it. The inertia of the climate system is such that, even if we could stop introducing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere right now, it will keep on warming for century and a half or two centuries before it reaches equilibrium.”
Himalayan glaciers are melting twice as fast now as they were before the turn of the century, a new study said. The study, which appeared in Science Advances, is the latest indication that climate change is eating the Himalayan glaciers, threatening water supplies for hundreds of millions of people downstream across South Asia.
Scientists combed 40 years of satellite observations spanning 2,000 km across India, China, Nepal and Bhutan, and found that the glaciers have been losing the equivalent of 45 centimetres of ice each year since 2000. The figure is double the amount of melting that took place from 1975 to 2000. It concluded that rising temperatures are the biggest factor. Average temperatures were one degree Celsius higher between 2000 to 2016 than they were between 1975 and 2000.
Other factors include changes in rainfall, with reductions tending to reduce ice cover, and the burning of fossil fuels, which lead to soot that lands on snowy glacier surfaces, absorbing sunlight and hastening melting. “It shows how endangered the Himalayas are if climate change continues at the same pace in the coming decades,” pointed out Etienne Berthier, a glaciologist at France’s Laboratory for Studies in Geophysics and Spatial Oceanography.
Far from the Madding Crowd
What makes Greenland so appealing that US President Donald Trump would want it? Recently, Trump said that he was interested in such a deal for strategic purposes. Trump even tweeted a doctored photo of a glistening Trump skyscraper looming over a small village in the Arctic territory stating “I promise not to do this to Greenland”.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called Trump’s musing about buying the Danish territory “an absurd discussion”. Denmark owns the mostly frozen island. Here’s a look at what makes this this ice-covered semi-autonomous Danish territory special.
Where is Greenland
The world’s largest island sits between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans. A 1.7-million-square-kilometre ice sheet covers 80% of the Arctic territory. Greenland’s 56,000 residents are mainly Inuits, the indigenous people. Their life revolves around fishing and the hunting of seals and whales.
How is it Governed
Greenland is part of the Danish realm along with the Faeroe Islands and has its own government and parliament, the 31-seat Inatsisartut. In 1979, Greenland gained home rule from Denmark. Its premier since 2014 is Kim Kielsen of the left-leaning Siumut party.
Greenland’s economy depends of fisheries and related industries, as well as annual subsidies of $670 million from Denmark, which handles its foreign affairs and defence matters. In 2013, it removed a 25-year-old ban on uranium mining since the element is often found mixed with other rare earth metals used for smartphones and weapons systems. A southern Greenland mine could be the largest rare-earth metals deposit outside China, which currently accounts for over 90% of global production.
The US also tried to buy the world’s largest island in 1946. Washington offered Denmark $100 million for Greenland. Denmark turned the offer down then as well. Under a 1951 deal, Denmark allowed the US to build rent-free bases and radar stations on Greenland. The US Air Force currently maintains only one base in northern Greenland, Thule Air Force Base, 1,200 kilometres south of the North Pole.
Due to global warming, it is believed that oil and other mineral wealth could become more accessible in the Arctic and Greenland. So global powers have moved in. Russia has become more active, and Canada too is evoking keen interest. In January 2018, Beijing unveiled its Polar Silk Road: strategy to extend its economic influence through the Arctic. China began sending scientific missions to Greenland in 2004, and a Chinese company has gained mining rights for rare earths.
• Greenland’s ice sheet may completely melt within the next millennium if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate
• If Greenland’s ice sheet was to disappear completely, it would raise the ocean level by seven metres
• Melting outlet glaciers could account for up to 40% of the ice mass lost from Greenland in the next 200 years
• In the next 200 years, the ice sheet model shows that melting at the present rate could contribute 48 to 160 centimetres to global sea level rise, 80% higher than previous estimates
• According to the World Meteorological Organization, Greenland’s ocean levels continue to rise by about 3.3 millimetres per year
• This phenomenon is accelerating: sea levels have jumped by 25 to 30% faster between 2004 and 2015, compared with the 1993-2004 period
• The area of the Greenland ice sheet that is showing indications of melt has been growing daily, and hit a record 56.5% on July 31, 2019
Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lung which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It’s an international crises – Emmanuel Macron, French President, on August 23, 2019.
— Inputs from AP, AFP