GP Insights

GP Insights # 403, 23 August 2020

Greenland: The ice sheet melts at a record rate
Rashmi Ramesh

What happened?
According to a recent study, based on satellite data, the Greenland ice sheet melted at a record rate in 2019. The study shows that it melted the most in 2019, greater than any year previously recorded. The research also reveals that between 2003 and 2016, the ice sheet lost 255 billion tons of ice on an average annually, while 532 billion tons were lost in 2019 alone. 

What is the background?
First, the concerns about the 'great Arctic melt'. Climate change debates across the world unwaveringly address the developments in the Arctic. Studies have shown that only two per cent of the Arctic's old and thick ice remains, and is being replaced by new and more fragile ice cover. 

Second, the changing weather patterns and unpredictability. 2012 was one of the warmest years on record, and a similar pattern continued. However, 2017 and 2018 were colder years with abnormally cold temperatures during summers and stronger winters. 2019 was again unusually warm with recording-breaking temperatures in the Arctic. Scientists attribute this to the "blocking patterns" of weather that was responsible for warm air circulation over Greenland for longer periods. This also means that the winter was warmer and witnessed less snowfall and ice accumulation.

Third, the larger picture of Climate change as a global phenomenon. No event related to climate change can be viewed in isolation from the other. Unusually warm and dry summers across the globe, floods in India, Bangladesh and China, wildfires in the US and near-ice free Arctic, are minuscule pictures of the larger catastrophe in the making. 

Fourth, the gap between awareness and action. There have been extensive studies on climate change and the dangers it is posing. Yet, there is a gap between awareness and the actions being taken to address the issue, both at the national and international levels. Countries and leaders either deny the existence of climate change or are unwilling to walk the talk even though they recognize the gravity of the problem. There are no serious international collaborations on climate change that have the backing of all the major powers together. The existing international mechanisms fail to make countries accountable for their actions. While protests by civil society do matter, not many changes can be expected at the governance level.

What does it mean?
First, reaching a point of no return. Until 2000, the ice sheet accumulated nearly the same amount of ice that it shed. But, in the past two decades, the rate of accumulation has been remarkably low. Greenland's ice sheet may now have reached a point from where the melt is irreversible. It implies that the ice sheet will continue to contract even if the average temperature of the planet does not increase, which is far from reality. 

Second, the rise of sea level. The Greenland ice sheet holds the second-largest amount of ice, after Antarctica, therefore crucial for maintaining the sea level. In 2019, this was the single biggest cause for the rise in sea level, about 1.5 metres. If the sheet melts completely, the sea level will rise by seven metres, capable of subsuming island countries and major coastal cities. It has an impact on how we look at the borders, habitations, biodiversity and economy.  

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