Unprecedented melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet
Last week NASA released new images of the Greenland ice sheet generated from satellite data showing that between the 8th and 12th of July 2012 the area of the ice sheet’s surface that was melting had increased from about 40 percent to an estimated 97 percent. On average during the summer approximately half of the ice sheet experiences such surface melting and this expansion of the melt area to include the highest altitude and coldest regions was described as “unprecedented” by the scientists at NASA. Such widespread melting has not been seen before during the past 34 years of satellite observations and melting at Summit Station, near the highest point on the ice sheet, has not occurred since 1889 based on ice core records.
The Greenland ice sheet gains mass from rain and snowfall and loses mass by solid ice discharge to the ocean (iceberg calving) and runoff of surface melt water. During the period 1961-1990 these processes are thought to have been in balance with the ice sheet’s mass stable (Rignot et al., 2008). During the last two decades, however, both ice discharge and liquid runoff have increased resulting in the ice sheet losing mass over this period at an accelerating rate (Velicogna, 2009, Rignot et al., 2011). Changes to these two processes have contributed approximately equally to recent mass loss (van den Broeke et al., 2009). Whilst these NASA images do not provide data about how much snow and ice have melted or the direct effect on mass balance, they do indicate a significantly larger area of the ice sheet has been melting.
While this melting is an extreme weather event, associated with a series of unusually warm fronts passing over Greenland this summer, new research on the ice sheet’s albedo from Jason Box, a researcher with Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, shows summer albedo has been decreasing over the last decade. This reduced reflectivity, particularly at high elevations as shown in the lower chart below, is associated with warming related feedbacks and means more energy is absorbed at the surface for melting leading Box to suggest earlier this year that it is reasonable to expect 100% melt extent within another decade of warming (Box et al., 2012).
Jason’s latest albedo data are available here: