Greenland’s ice melt posing increased risks for coastal communities

The flow of melt runoff has been accelerating over the past 4 decades
Published: Nov. 5, 2021 at 2:26 PM EDT
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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - Dr. Thomas Slater, a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, has lead a new study to determine the frequency of extreme melt events in Greenland and the impacts on global sea level. Using satellite data to monitor ice sheet runoff, the Leeds’ research team has uncovered a dramatic rise in runoff over the past 40 years.

The results of the study, first published in Nature Communications, show that since the 1980s, meltwater runoff has risen by over 20%. Beyond just an increase in runoff, it also shows a more erratic pattern, hinting at abrupt melting events more than seasonal melt.

In this July 18, 2011 photo, icebergs shed from the Greenland ice sheet float near Ilulissat,...
In this July 18, 2011 photo, icebergs shed from the Greenland ice sheet float near Ilulissat, Greenland. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)(Brennan Linsley | ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Since 2011, 3.5 trillion metric tons of ice has melted from the surface of Greenland and flowed to the ocean. To put it into perspective, this is enough ice melt to cover the entire state of North Carolina with over 65 feet of water.

“As our climate warms, it’s reasonable to expect that the instances of extreme melting in Greenland will happen more often – observations such as these are an important step in helping us to improve climate models and better predict what will happen this century,” said Dr. Slater.

One global impact of climate change is the increase of extreme weather events, which includes polar heat waves. This past August, we saw rain at the highest point of Greenland’s ice sheet for the first time in recorded history.

The temperature rise at the poles is having measurable melt impacts on a global scale. Over the past decade, the melt runoff has increased global sea level by 1 cm on its own. This will affect the flood risk for all coastal communities, including our beaches here in Eastern Carolina.

The runoff also has the potential to alter atmospheric circulations (North Atlantic Oscillation for example), which would impact weather patterns across the globe. Extreme heat waves could become more frequent, and if they are anything like the heat waves Greenland saw in 2012 and 2019, the intense runoff will continue to add to the rising seas.

The study was funded by the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of its Polar+Surface Mass Balance Feasibility project. For more information on this study, you can go here.

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