In recent days, Greenland’s massive ice sheet has been melting at twice its average summer rate, shedding enough water to cover the entire state of Florida with 5 inches of water, research from Danish scientists shows.
Greenland’s ice sheet covers just over 660,000 square miles and is 5,000 feet thick in places, but since July 27 it has lost 9.37 billion tons of ice due to rising surface and water temperatures in the Arctic and a recent heat wave that sent temperatures close to 70 degrees.
“This ice melt is accelerating and it’s going to be unbelievable over the next decade or two,” Harold Wanless, professor of geography and urban sustainability at the University of Miami, told Yahoo News. “We’re just at the beginning.”
Wanless, who has spent nearly six decades studying the geological impacts of rising seas on global coastlines since the last ice age, noted that mass melting events have been occurring with greater frequency over the past 20 years.
“In 2012, when Greenland had their first dramatic melt across the whole ice sheet, it was unexpected,” he said. “That wasn’t in the models for decades to have anything like that. Now that has become pretty commonplace.”
In the summer of 2013, Wanless traveled to Greenland and was shocked by what he saw.
“The top of the ice sheet was amazing. The top 3 feet of it was soft with vertical holes where the water was melting down through this ice,” he said. “I had a friend who went further onto the ice sheet with a military group and they got out of their helicopters and were halfway to their knees in slush. That’s just a very unhealthy ice sheet.”
While summer melting of Arctic ice is not new, warmer ocean water has sped up the rate. A recent study found that while the Earth lost an average of 760 billion tons of ice in the 1990s, that rate grew to more than 1.2 trillion tons in the 2010s.
“When you’re in a warming climate and the presence of ice, you have these pulses of rapid collapse of ice and that’s what we have to look forward to,” Wanless said. “We just started melting ice in about 1990, and we’re seeing this rapidly accelerate in both polar areas.”
And Greenland is one region where the melting of the ice sheet could have a huge impact on the entire world. According to an estimate by the U.S.’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, if all of Greenland’s ice were to disappear, sea levels would rise by approximately 20 feet.
For years, scientists have warned that sea level rise born of climate change threatens coastal communities. Based on current modeling and research, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration created an online mapping tool that allows people to visualize how a specific amount of sea level rise will affect the coastline in their communities. The rate of sea level rise has been sharply accelerating in recent years and is expected to continue to speed up in the decades to come.
“The barrier islands and the low coastal areas of the bays behind the barrier islands, you have to realize that everything in those areas around the world is going to be at risk with the next 2 to 3 feet of sea level rise,” Wanless said. “With the rate of acceleration of ice melt, it’s very, very likely that we could be at 3 feet of rise by 2050.”
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