Science & Technology

Greenland Ice Sheet Already Reached Tipping Point 20 Years Ago

The Greenland ice sheet seemingly lies above an historic tundra panorama with its personal advanced topography. Credit score: Michalea King

On the flip of the twenty first century, unbeknownst to the world, the Greenland ice sheet seemingly entered a state of sustained mass loss that can persist for the foreseeable future, in keeping with a brand new examine. Although the discovering has raised concern over the way forward for the ice sheet, scientists emphasize that decreasing emissions stays essential.

The examine, which checked out 40 years of satellite tv for pc knowledge, was launched on August 13, 2020, in Communications Earth & Setting. Second in measurement solely to the Antarctic ice sheets, the Greenland ice sheet covers practically 80 % of the huge island. It accommodates the equal of about 24 ft of world imply sea stage rise and, resulting from its accelerated retreat, is taken into account the to rising sea ranges worldwide.

Whereas the ice sheet’s decline has been well-documented over the previous 20 years, this newest examine, led by Michalea King of the Byrd Polar and Local weather Analysis Middle, discovered that widespread glacier retreat helped push the ice sheet from a balanced to an imbalanced state. This work means that even when the oceans and environment had been to cease warming at present, the ice sheet will proceed to lose extra ice than it should acquire.

Members of the analysis group place tools atop the ice sheet. Credit score: Michalea King

Within the a long time main as much as the flip of the century, the ice sheet was in a state of relative equilibrium. The ice misplaced in a given yr can be replenished by wintertime snowfall, and the sheet maintained a near-constant mass. However starting across the yr 2000, ice discharged via outlet glaciers—channels that stream outward to the ocean—began to outpace annual snowfall that, in a balanced yr, would replenish misplaced ice. The authors sifted via 40 years of satellite tv for pc knowledge, monitoring outlet glacier velocity, thickness, and calving entrance place over time to find out the speed of ice loss. The shift they discovered represents a tipping level that’s unlikely to be reversible within the close to future. King advised GlacierHub, “It’s like a gear change… we’ve accelerated the drainage on the fringe of the ice sheet, and now… we count on mass loss to be the brand new norm for the ice sheet within the close to future.”

Ian Howat, director of the Byrd Polar and Local weather Analysis Middle and co-author of the paper, defined to GlacierHub that the dynamics of ice loss via outlet glaciers could be likened to the functioning of a dam. “These glaciers act identical to a spillway on a dam,” he stated. “The extra you open the spillway… the quicker the reservoir will get drawn down.” The examine means that longer-term thinning all through the twentieth century—seemingly resulting from warming oceans—led as much as a mass retreat occasion within the early 2000s. The outcome was a “step-increase” within the charge of discharge via outlet glaciers; earlier than 2000, 420 gigatons of ice had been discharged yearly. Within the years following, the speed elevated to 480 gigatons of ice discharged yearly. A gigaton is the same as one billion metric tons, roughly the mass of all land mammals (excluding people) on Earth. “When all of those glaciers retreated directly, it was sufficient to considerably improve the speed at which ice flows into the ocean. It’s just like the spillway on the dam was opened up,” Howat stated.

The ice loss proven above has resulted in about 0.8 millimeters per yr of sea stage rise. Credit score: NASA

Based on King, the importance of this new charge of discharge is that “constantly, extra ice is being misplaced via the stream of those glaciers than is being gained by snow accumulation.” Returning to a balanced state would require an additional 60 gigatons per yr of snowfall or lowered melting. But underneath , the alternative is predicted.

The findings of this examine—together with others that doc the decline of the Greenland ice sheet—spell worrying information for sea stage rise trajectories. Marco Tedesco, analysis professor of marine geology and geophysics on the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, defined to GlacierHub that the Greenland ice sheet has been, and can more and more be, a serious contributor to rising sea ranges. The 2 main causes of sea stage rise are thermal enlargement—ocean water expands because it warms—and the melting of land-based ice. With sea stage rise projected to submerge land house to completely under the excessive tide line (and that estimate assumes stability of the Antarctic ice sheet), Greenland finds itself within the highlight. “By way of direct contribution,” Tedesco stated, “Greenland is definitely the biggest contributor now, with about 20 to 25 % of sea stage rise resulting from Greenland.” Furthermore, the share of contribution might improve to 30 or 40 % by the tip of the century, in keeping with Tedesco.

Coastal waters of Greenland from above. Credit score: Michalea King

on the Greenland ice sheet, coauthored by Tedesco, made worldwide headlines lately, concluding that 2019 was a yr of document ice loss. Based on scientists, the ice misplaced in 2019 was double the yearly common since 2003. Ian Joughin, a glaciologist on the College of Washington’s Polar Science Middle, related the dots between these two main research. “No person actually, 20 years in the past, was anticipating glaciers to hurry up as quickly as what we’ve seen,” he advised GlacierHub. By way of annual lack of ice, “folks consider it as melting, nevertheless it’s principally the steadiness between how a lot snow falls annually, and the way a lot icebergs calve off and the way a lot melting truly happens on the ice sheet itself.” In the end, neither melting nor ice discharge alone can clarify the altering ice sheet. They’re, relatively, two processes in a fancy dynamic, which glaciologists are racing to grasp utilizing a mix of discipline work, distant sensing, and modeling.

Fast worldwide motion is required to restrict international warming to 1.5˚C, which might enable extra time for adaptation to rising sea ranges. Addressing current headlines declaring that the ice sheet has reached the purpose of no return, an announcement that has since been inside the scientific neighborhood, Howat stated, “I believe it’s crucial to emphasise that this lack of the ice sheet just isn’t irreversible. We’ve witnessed a step-change that’s unlikely to be reversible within the close to future, however we nonetheless have a protracted solution to go and we nonetheless have plenty of say in how shortly the ice sheet will proceed to retreat.”

Reference: “Dynamic ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet pushed by sustained glacier retreat” by Michalea D. King, Ian M. Howat, Salvatore G. Candela, Myoung J. Noh, Seongsu Jeong, Brice P. Y. Noël, Michiel R. van den Broeke, Bert Wouters and Adelaide Negrete, 13 August 2020, Communications Earth & Setting.

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