Study: Greenland loses 300 billion cubic meters of ice per year - 20% more than expected

Scientists calculated what will happen if all ice melts on the world’s largest island.

A comprehensive study conducted in the United States over decades and published in the journal Nature last January reveals a troubling reduction in the size of nearly every glacier in Greenland. 

The world’s largest island has lost 20% more ice than previously estimated, the authors concluded after the analysis of hundreds of thousands of satellite images spanning from 1985 to 2022. 

The Greenland ice sheet is losing more than 300 billion cubic metres of ice per year, driving global sea levels up by a little less than a millimeter per year, according to Copernicus, Europe's climate monitor. 

Greenland after 100,000 years of convergence temperatures of 0°C to 6.5°C. With no warming (top left) things stay as they are. With extreme climate change (bottom right) ice remains only on a few isolated mountains. Credit: Nature

Previous assessments suggested that approximately 5,000 gigatons of ice had vanished from Greenland's surface over the past two decades, a substantial contributor to the rising sea levels. However, the recent study, drawing from almost 240,000 satellite images depicting glacier terminus positions, highlighted that almost all glaciers in Greenland have experienced thinning or retreat over the given period.

Lead author Chad Greene, a glaciologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, emphasized that the melting phenomenon made no exceptions, with glaciers receding uniformly across Greenland. The study indicated that more than 1,000 gigatons, equivalent to 20% of the ice surrounding Greenland's edges, had been lost over the last four decades, a significant discrepancy from previous calculations.

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The melting of Greenland's ice sheet, the world's second-largest after Antarctica, has contributed over 20% to observed sea level rise since 2002. This poses a severe threat to coastal and island communities housing millions of people and could potentially submerge entire island nations and coastal cities.

Climate change as a result of human activities are mainly to blame for the problem, according to an overwhelming majority of scientists. Atmospheric warming can trigger glacier surface melting, allowing water to seep down into the ice sheet's base, facilitating ice loss. The influence of warmer oceans, absorbing around 90% of excess heat from human-induced carbon emissions, is closely tied to the melting of vital ice shelves buffering Greenland and Antarctica's vast ice sheets.

What if all of Greenland’s ice vanishes?

An earlier study, published in the same journal Nature in October 2023, offers some math regarding the consequences of the eventual loss of the entire ice cover on the 2-million-square-meter landmass. 

If global warming targets are missed, and temperatures exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius after 2100, while we do nothing to address the climate issue, Greenland’s ice sheet will face substantial melting. If all of its kilometers-thick ice layer disappears, the global ocean level will rise about seven meters.

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