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Greenland ice sheet experiences record loss to calving of glaciers and ocean melt over the past year

The ice sheet lost more than it gained, for the 25th straight year.

Thule Air Base, Pituffik, Greenland on Sept. 1, 2021. (Josh Willis/NASA OMG)
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Greenland has had a quite a year. For the first time in its history, rain fell at its summit. In August, it experienced one of the latest-occurring melt events in recent memory. This also became the third year with major melting events in the past decade.

By the end of the melt season, the ice sheet lost more ice than it gained — for the 25th year in a row.

“The long-term past two decades have shown us the incredible wrongness in calling ‘glacial pace’ something slow,” said Marco Tedesco, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

Greenland lost a net total of 166 gigatons of ice from September 2020 through August 2021. Overall, this loss is on par with recent decades — but how the world’s largest island arrived at that final number is not.

“2020/21 was a comparably ‘normal’ year. The new normal, that is,” wrote Martin Stendel, a polar researcher at the Danish Meteorological Institute, in an email. “But that does not mean it was good in this sense.”

The island experienced anomalous swings from intense melting to unusual snowfall from a former hurricane. While the annual snowfall accumulation was healthy, ice loss from iceberg calving and ocean melt was the highest since at least satellite records began in 1986.

How Larry socked Greenland and unleashed an unusual blizzard

“When we see instability like this, this switch from a lot of accumulation to a lot of melting to a lot of accumulation to a lot of melting, it’s really a signal of the system that is looking for a way to be stable again,” said Tedesco, who also serves as an adjunct scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “The message of instability that Greenland is sending is terrible.”

This year’s activity over Greenland has many researchers concerned for a not-too-distant future.

A balancing act

Scientists calculate Greenland’s total mass losses and gains by accounting for several factors. For one, they look at the net accumulation of snow on the ice sheet’s surface, known as surface mass balance, from when the first snowflakes fall (typically September) through the end of the melt season (the following August).

Winter snowfall was close to average this year, according to a summary by Stendel and his colleagues. Then, in late June, a near-record amount of snow fell. Not only did the snow add mass to the ice sheet, but it also helped reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere and helped delay the first melt of summer.

But starting in July, Greenland experienced three notable melting events. Researchers reported that one episode triggered an impressive loss of eight to 12 gigatons per day from the ice sheet. Another episode in August also caused widespread melting, but it was perhaps more noteworthy because it occurred unusually late in the melt season while rain fell on the ice sheet’s summit for the first time on record.

Rain falls at the summit of Greenland ice sheet for first time on record

Overall, the ice sheet managed to gain 396 gigatons of mass because of snowfall from September 2020 to August 2021 — average for recent decades, although still significantly lower than in the 1990s.

However, mass increases because of snow on the ice sheet’s surface are only part of the story.

During the year, a large portion of ice is lost through the calving, or breaking off, of icebergs. Ice is also lost from relatively warmer seawater coming into contact and melting glacier tongues. (A much smaller proportion of ice is also lost through “basal melting,” which accounts for the heat flux from under the ice sheet as it slides over the ground.)

This year, scientists calculated that around 500 gigatons were lost to iceberg calving and ocean melt — the highest in 35 years of satellite records.

Notably, the Jakobshavn Glacier (also known as the Ilulissat glacier) on West Greenland, the world’s fastest-moving glacier, shed about 45 gigatons in the past year — particularly alarming considering that it was growing recently. This calving accounts for about 10 percent of the total calving and ocean melt loss this year.

“The warmer ocean — together with the surface melt — is what really makes a glacier like that retreat and probably Jakobshavn got the double whammy this year,” ocean scientist Josh Willis wrote in an email. Willis leads NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland project, and he conducted field research in Greenland this summer.

In the end, the high amount of ice loss from glacial calving and submarine melting significantly affected the ice sheet’s mass balance for this year. But it might have been worse, had the surface mass accumulation not been so high. In 2019, low winter snowfall plus a warm summer resulted in a net ice loss of 329 gigatons.

The 2020-2021 period “was not close to a record, which I’m very thankful for, but it was another year where we were overall losing ice and not gaining it on the ice sheet,” said Twila Moon, a researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

From September 1968 to August 2021, the Greenland ice sheet has lost around 5,500 gigatons of ice — equivalent to 1.5 centimeters of global average sea level rise.

A harbinger

Climate change is a double-edged sword for Greenland. On one hand, as global temperatures rise, the amount of moisture in the air will increase and could lead to more precipitation — including more snowfall.

“You have an accumulation that is helping to mute the melting and help the mass of Greenland to gain a little,” said Tedesco. “But at the same time, it’s something that we think is very connected to what is going to happen as part of global warming.”

Higher global temperatures will also induce more surface melting and melting from the ocean, with the losses outweighing the increases in snow accumulation, similar to this year.

“What we’ve seen, if we look at sort of longer-term trends, is that loss of mass from Greenland from increased melt and runoff from the summer would more than offset the increased accumulation that we would see,” said Tom Mote, a climate scientist at the University of Georgia.

Another concern is that the increase in snowfall could change to rain as the climate warms. In recent decades, darker, wetter clouds have increasingly moved over Greenland, said Tedesco. This year, rain was prevalent across the ice sheet. Qaqortoq, a town in southern Greenland, set a daily rainfall record of 5.7 inches over the summer. The town of Qaanaaq in northwestern Greenland also experienced flooding. Then, there was the rain on the summit.

“When we see events like we saw in mid-August, where we see rainfall at the highest elevations of the ice sheet, I think it portends what we might see in future climates,” said Mote.

Rain harms the health of the ice sheet in several ways. Moon said it can change the shape of the snow crystals and make them darker, leading to more absorption of sunlight and more melting on the surface. The rain can also create ice lenses, which prevent meltwater from percolating into older snow layers in the ground and freezing. Instead, the meltwater would flow off the ice sheet.

Rain would also make life harder for researchers visiting the ice sheet for field work. It would affect a variety of areas, including field technology, runways for aircraft, underground food storage and even sewage.

“With every decade warmer than the last, breaking records is the new normal. The ice sheet is in for a wild ride,” wrote NASA’s Willis. “And so are we.”