The ice caps in Greenland are melting at a much higher rate than scientists previously thought, one that could profoundly affect major oceanic currents, according to a new study published in the Nature Journal.
The study, which analyzed “236,328 manually derived and AI-derived observations of glacier terminus positions collected from 1985 to 2022,” found that recent models have underestimated the totality of Greenland’s glacial retreat by as much as 20 percent. The area studied had lost approximately 5,000 square kilometers of ice, or more than 1,000 metric gigatons, since 1985. This — combined with other studies tracking yearly glacial melt, points to a rate of loss of 30 million metric tons of ice every hour.
While portions of Greenland’s glacial ice sheets exist underwater and are not currently having a dramatic impact on sea levels, the study warns that the rate of melting “is sufficient to affect ocean circulation and the distribution of heat energy around the globe.”
“Although the ice loss associated with glacier terminus retreat has had a minimal direct effect on sea-level rise, it is often a precursor to accelerated glacier flow into the ocean,” the study’s brief says.
Chad Greene, a lead author on the study and a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (and the musician behind the upcoming album “The Iceman Strummeth”), explained that “when the ice at the end of a glacier calves and retreats, it’s like pulling the plug out of the fjord, which lets ice drain into the ocean faster.”
“The changes around Greenland are tremendous and they’re happening everywhere – almost every glacier has retreated over the past few decades,” Greene added in a statement to The Guardian, It makes sense that if you dump freshwater onto the North Atlantic Ocean, then you certainly get a weakening of the [Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation current (Amoc)], though I don’t have an intuition for how much weakening.”
In 2018, scientists warned that the Amoc current was weakening, something that could have catastrophic implications for weather patterns and global oceanic current patterns, should it collapse. As American researcher Jason Box told Rolling Stone that same year in a profile exploring his research on Greenland’s glaciers, ice is “nature’s thermometer.”
“It’s not political. As the world heats up, ice melts. It’s very simple … We are heading into uncharted terrain,” Box said. “We are creating a different climate than the Earth has ever seen before.”
The new study comes shortly after researchers determined that 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history by a significant margin, and as the international community continues to struggle to reach a consensus on the measures necessary to prevent widespread climate catastrophe.
Last month, nations at the UN’s 2023 global climate summit, COP28, signed a historic agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuels and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The deal was the subject of tense negotiations at the summit and almost fell apart due to efforts from oil-exporting nations to remove language calling for a full “phase out” of fossil fuel energy resources.
During the conference, the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative — which studies global ice sheets — hosted a pavilion exclusively dedicated to the discussion of climate change impacts related to the Earth’s frozen landscapes. At the end of the conference, an open letter from the group urged the governments meeting at the convention to “move forward both urgency and ambition in mitigation of climate change due to the response of the various components of the Cryosphere — ice sheets, glaciers, snow, permafrost, sea ice and also polar oceans.”
Should they fail to act, the letter warns, “world leaders are de facto deciding to burden humanity for centuries to millennia by displacing hundreds of millions of people from flooding coastal settlements; depriving societies of life-giving freshwater resources, disrupting delicately-balanced polar ocean and mountain ecosystems; and forcing future generations to offset long-term permafrost emissions.”
“This continued rise in CO2 is unacceptable,” the letter concludes. “The melting point of ice pays no attention to rhetoric, only to our actions.”
More from Rolling Stone
Best of Rolling Stone