Unprecedented melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet

2012 August 18
by Chris Vernon

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.

Greenland Melt

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right).

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).

Greenland Albedo

Greenland ice sheet reflectivity 0-3200m elevation

Greeland Albedo

Greenland ice sheet reflectivity 2500-3200m elevation

Jason’s latest albedo data are available here:

This post was originally written for the Cabot Institute blog at The University of Bristol where two of my colleges also offer their thoughts on this melt event.

One Response leave one →
  1. Adrian Pike permalink
    August 23, 2012

    Interesting article, if a bit concerning. It comes at the same time as another news item:

    “Arctic sea ice looks set to hit a record low by the end of the month, according to satellite data.

    Scientists at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center said data showed that the sea ice extent was tracking below the previous record low, set in 2007.”


    Yet another warning sign that will probably be ignored until it is all to late…

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