Greenland’s Ice Sheets Are Melting at a Shockingly High Speed

A crew of scientists is assessing the oceans of Greenland in order to figure out how it devours the ice. Oceanographers Josh Willis and Ian Fenty are two of the scientists working on the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) project in the vast ice sheets of Greenland.

Greenland is, at the moment, the biggest contributor to global sea-level rise. If, by 2020, its ice sheet’s melt contribute with a few inches to the world’s oceans, or even more – and how much more – the team of oceanographers intend to find out.

Almost 70 percent of Earth’s population is located within 160 kilometers of a coast, and a considerable number of infrastructures, such as airports, ports, cities, roads, and Internet cables, sit in areas that could flood within decades.

For this reason, Willis said they need to figure out what is happening in the icy waters of Greenland, as the ocean melts the ice.

​Ice is Melting Everywhere

Currently, the Greenland ice sheet is losing mass approximately six times faster than it was just a few years ago. Within the last 50 years, the ice sheet already melted enough to add around half an inch of water to the global oceans. That number is rapidly increasing as the planet fights overall heating.

Even though the water locked up in the Greenland ice layers will add approximately 7.6 meters to the world’s oceans, it doesn’t have to collapse to the last bit to cause catastrophic, global reverberations.

Over the first decades of this century, researchers have created some sophisticated ways to measure how fast the ice was melting. They used radars and visible-spectrum satellite images to observe the glaciers, including a powerful pair of satellites to calculate the ice loss as it was happening. When they managed to get a better view of how much the ice was flowing, they could see that many of the 200 outlet glaciers they were studying were reducing.

Willis and his colleagues theorized that the reason was the ocean, so they developed a project. They had to know what the bathymetry below the ice looked like, on land and in the water as well. They also needed to know what was happening with the water itself: if it was warm, where, and why.

Huge chunks of ice break off the glaciers in Greenland.​ [Photo Courtesy of NASA GODDARD]
In 2015, the team began exploring Greenland’s water and land to find out what they were looking for. They discovered that parts of the water around the coast were shockingly warm, at times measuring up to 10 degrees Celsius or more.

The researchers used a probe to measure the temperature of the water at various levels near the massive Helheim glacier, located in the southeastern part of the coast. When the probe sent the data it registered, it showed a warm wall of water expanding about 2,000 meters to the bottom of the fjord.

Every year since 2015, the team has dropped approximately 250 probes into the waters around the edge of Greenland. They discovered that warm water nosed up to the end of glaciers all over the island, most of the time.

The Future of Our Oceans

The team’s probe is put to work endlessly, and it starts beaming back to the screen the already familiar signal indicating warm water, more and more.

The warm layer has meddled in most of the East part of the coast for most of the years the scientists have been using probes to determine the water temperature. This is mostly due to a product of a weather cycle that impacts the wind and ocean currents around the island.

As of now, the cycle is in a stage that allows warm Atlantic water slosh towards Greenland rather than being driven to Europe. The changes to the cycle have not been bluntly linked to climate change yet. However, there are some clues that the phase that makes warm water to spring up to the edge of the ice is getting rifer.

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