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Losing Greenland

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The current issue of Nature has a feature about the state of the Greenland ice sheet (See also the related editorial dealing with the state of polar research funding).

I got started on this story at the American Geophysical Union meeting last December, in which session after session presented new data about the extent of summer melt in Greenland. Information from the GRACE satellites shows that the overall mass balance of the ice sheet is dropping steadily, and although surface melt varies quite a bit from summer to summer, two of the last three years have seen record levels of melt.

“2007 was a shocking year,” Scott Luthcke, who works with GRACE at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, told me later.

One record melt season does not spell the end of Greenland, of course, and journalists must always be wary about sounding too alarmist based on short-term records. But overall, the outlook for Greenland is simply not good: Changes in speeds of the island’s outlet glaciers show that, no matter whether they are advancing or retreating, they are far faster at changing their behavior than anyone had thought before.

As the article was going to press, we learned that another pair of key Greenland papers would appear the next day online in Science. Such is the peril of scheduling features far in advance while knowing your competitor journal has interesting papers under review.

The basic point of the two new papers — that vast quantities of meltwater can form and then drain away atop the ice sheet each summer – made it into my feature anyway. But if you want more details, check out the original papers at the Science Express website. One paper, with lead author Sarah Das of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, reports on a 4-kilometre-long melt lake that vanished into the ice sheet within the space of two hours. The other, with lead author Ian Joughin of the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, describes seasonal speed-up in ice flow along Greenland’s western flank – though not so much in the outlet glaciers. Together, the papers confirm how meltwater likely helps lubricate the slippage of the ice sheet towards the ocean.

If you’re still looking for more things Greenland, check out the recent posting on RealClimate that again suggests the details of how Greenland melts are more complicated than we thought.

And if you just need a fix of gorgeous Greenland pictures, click on over to the Extreme Ice Survey project of photographer James Balog and others. We used only one of Balog’s iceberg images in my Nature feature, but his time-lapse work of melting glaciers is stunning.

Alexandra Witze



  1. Report this comment

    nanny_govt_sucks said:

    But overall, the outlook for Greenland is simply not good

    Well, it appears the outlook for GreenLAND is quite good. There will be more of it.

  2. Report this comment

    Eric Gisin said:

    Losing Greenland? Are all you articles so biased?

    Ice sheets are wasteland that support no life. At least tundra will support something, look at Canada.

  3. Report this comment

    blue7053 said:

    There is certainly a correlation between temperture/altitude, terrain/angle of solar incidence, and others inappropriate for this limited forum, therefore, I see a line of lakes and moulins that function like a zipper. Would a line of weak spots allow hundreds of miles to crack off?

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