Greenland's Ice Sheet Reaching 'Tipping Point,' Melting Four Times Faster Than 2003

Scientists have warned Greenland's ice sheet is reaching a "tipping point," after a study revealed it was melting four times faster than in 2003.

The loss of ice could put coastal cities like Miami and New York, as well as islands elsewhere, at risk, according to the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read more: Really weird, spinning disk of ice 300-foot wide has appeared on Maine's Presumpscot river

The paper's lead author Michael Bevis, a professor of geodynamics at The Ohio State University, commented: "The only thing we can do is adapt and mitigate further global warming—it's too late for there to be no effect.

"This is going to cause additional sea level rise. We are watching the ice sheet hit a tipping point," Bevis said, adding we are "going to see faster and faster sea level rise for the foreseeable future."

"Once you hit that tipping point, the only question is: How severe does it get?" he continued.

On average, Greenland lost around 280 gigatons of ice annually between 2002 and 2016, causing the sea to rise at 0.03 inches each year.

In the past, southeast and northwest regions of Greenland have prompted worry about their contribution to climbing sea levels, as that is where icebergs break off glaciers and melt into the Atlantic Ocean. The largely glacier-free southwest was less of a concern—until now. The team focused on southwest Greenland and found it was the site of the most sustained ice loss between 2003 to 2013. The region's ice overall was found to be melting four times faster than in 2003.

Scientists believe ice is melting inland—likely propelled by a combination of global warming and the North Atlantic Oscillation cycle that heats West Greenland—and sending streams of water gushing towards the coastline and into the ocean.

The conclusion was based on the findings of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (a joint research project established by NASA and German scientists in 2002 using satellites to monitor Greenland's ice), as well as data from coastal GPS equipment located in the region.

Bevis explained: "We knew we had one big problem with increasing rates of ice discharge by some large outlet glaciers.

"But now we recognize a second serious problem: Increasingly, large amounts of ice mass are going to leave as meltwater, as rivers that flow into the sea."

Referring to the North Atlantic Oscillation, which sends warm air and solar radiation towards West Greenland, Bevis continued: "These oscillations have been happening forever. So why only now are they causing this massive melt? It's because the atmosphere is, at its baseline, warmer. The transient warming driven by the North Atlantic Oscillation was riding on top of more sustained, global warming."

"Global warming has brought summertime temperatures in a significant portion of Greenland close to the melting point, and the North Atlantic Oscillation has provided the extra push that caused large areas of ice to melt".

Dr. Anna Hogg, an expert in Earth's polar regions at the University of Leeds, U.K. who was not involved in the research, pointed out to Newsweek that the paper was also interesting because it investigated an apparent pause in melting in 2013, after an extreme surface melt event in 2012.

"This paper shows that while we have seen a well-documented acceleration in Greenland ice loss since the early 2000's, simple characterizations of this as 'a constant acceleration,' don't do the full picture justice because these observations show that ice loss can slow down, or 'pause'."

However, she argued the study was limited because the data was collected between 2003 and 2016. "Unfortunately the really interesting signal which is the pause in the total rate of ice loss, started in 2013 and continues through to 2016 when this dataset ends, leaving us in suspense to find out what happens next."

Dr. Richard Alley, a professor at the Pennsylvania State University Department of Geosciences who was not involved in the research told The Guardian: "We are warming the planet, this is melting ice, and that is raising sea level."

"If the big ice sheets change more rapidly than expected, they could drive faster or much faster rise than expected," he said.

The study is the latest to shine a light on the alarming trends of global warming and the dangers posed by rising sea levels. Since 1901, sea levels have risen by around 8 inches.

Late last year, the Maldives—an island nation in the Indian Ocean—told a UN climate talk it was desperately trying to keep "heads above water."

The head of the Maldives delegation, Mohamed Nasheed, told an audience in Katowice, Poland: "We are not prepared to die. We are not going to become the first victims of the climate crisis. Instead, we are going to do everything in our power to keep our heads above water."

Hogg suggested the average person has a role to play in slowing global warming. "Firstly we need to lower our energy demand, if we use less energy by turning down the heating or taking public transport this can have a big impact. Secondly, we need to lower the emissions generated from the energy we do use, so this means switching to green energy suppliers.

"And finally, we need to let decision makers and politicians know that this is an issue that matters to us, that they should act on. After all, this challenge is about preserving the natural environment, and creating a sustainable and healthy world, so its absolutely a battle worth fighting!"

This article has been updated with comment from Anna Hogg.

greenland ice stock getty
A Humpback whale, is pictured on Disko Bay, Greenland. Researchers have warned the region's ice sheets are melting faster than predicted. Getty Images

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