Faster-than-expected melting of Greenland's ice fields is worrisome news for the fate of the larger ice sheet, and subsequent sea level rise.
Ice caps and glaciers along the coast of Greenland passed a tipping point in 1997, when a layer of snow that once absorbed summer meltwater became fully saturated. Since then, the coastal ice fields—separate from the main Greenland Ice Sheet—have been melting three times faster than they had been, according to a new study published Friday in the journal Nature Communications.
"The melting ice caps are an alarm signal for the ice sheet. It means long-term ice mass loss is inevitable. It will increase and accelerate if nothing changes," said lead author Brice Noël, a scientist at the University of Utrecht Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research. "It's very unlikely the ice caps will recover. It's a climate tipping point—the time at which a change or an effect cannot be stopped."
Climate scientists are wary of tipping points, when a series of sma ll changes make a much larger change inevitable. The fear is a total meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which would raise global sea level by 24 feet, Noël said. Overall, the rate of ice sheet melting is accelerating, according to peer-reviewed studies cited in the most recent Arctic report from NOAA.
"On a warming planet, there will be less snow and more rain. That will limit the formation of healthy snow that could absorb the runoff in summer. Additional melt will just run off toward the ocean, raising sea level," he said. "What we saw there in normal conditions, before 1997, is that the snow was able to absorb most of the melt and then refreeze. So the melting was not contributing to sea level rise before 1997, even though warming was already ongoing."
Read more at Greenland's Coastal Ice Passed a Climate Tipping Point 20 Years Ago, Study Says