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Climate & Environment

Greenland’s glaciers are melting. It’s as if Earth’s refrigerator door were left open

Greenland glaciers
A boat navigates at night next to large icebergs in eastern Greenland. Greenland’s ice has been melting for more than 20 years.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

This is where Earth’s refrigerator door is left open, where glaciers dwindle and seas begin to rise.

New York University air and ocean scientist David Holland, who’s been tracking Greenland from above and below, calls it “the end of the planet.” He’s referring to geography, not making an apocalyptic prediction. Yet in many ways, this spot just inside the Arctic Circle is where the planet’s warmer and watery future is being written.

It is so warm here that on an August day, coats are left on the ground and Holland and colleagues work on the watery melting ice without gloves. In one of the closest towns, Kulusuk, the morning temperature reached 52 degrees Fahrenheit — warm enough for shirtsleeves.

The ice Holland is standing on is thousands of years old. Scientists say it will be gone within a year or two, adding yet more water to rising seas worldwide.

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Summer this year is hitting Greenland hard with record-shattering heat and extreme melt. By season’s end, about 440 billion tons of ice — maybe more — will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet, experts estimate. That’s enough to flood the entire state of Pennsylvania under water about a foot deep.

Between July 31 and Aug. 3 alone, more than 58 billion tons melted from the surface. The average for this time of year is less than 18 billion tons. And that doesn’t even count the huge calving events or the warm water eating away at the glaciers from below.

Greenland glaciers
A woman stands next to an antenna at a New York University base camp at the Helheim Glacier in Greenland. Summer 2019 is hitting the island hard with record-shattering heat and extreme melt.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

One of the places hit hardest this hot Greenland summer is on the southeastern edge of the giant frozen island. Helheim, one of Greenland’s fastest-retreating glaciers, has shrunk about 6 miles since scientists came here in 2005.

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Several scientists, such as oceanographer Josh Willis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said what’s happening is the result of both manmade climate change and natural but weird weather patterns.

Glaciers here do shrink in the summer and grow in the winter, but nothing like this year.

Greenland glaciers
A boat navigates at night next to large icebergs near the town of Kulusuk, in eastern Greenland. Greenland's ice has been melting for more than 20 years, but the pace has picked up in 2019.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Summit Station, a research camp nearly 2 miles high and far north, warmed to above freezing twice this year for a record total of 16.5 hours. Before this year, that station was above zero for only 6.5 hours in 2012, once in 1889 and also in the Middle Ages.

“If you look at climate model projections, we can expect to see larger areas of the ice sheet experiencing melt for longer durations of the year and greater mass loss going forward,” said University of Georgia ice scientist Tom Mote. “There’s every reason to believe that years that look like this will become more common.”

A NASA satellite found that Greenland’s ice sheet lost about 255 billion metric tons of ice a year between 2003 and 2016, with the loss rate generally getting worse over that period. Nearly all of the 28 Greenland glaciers that Danish climate scientist Ruth Mottram measured are retreating, especially Helheim.

Greenland glaciers
New York University student researchers sit on top of a rock overlooking the Helheim glacier in Greenland in August.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)
Greenland glaciers
A helicopter sits on the Greenland ice as New York University scientist David Holland and his team install a radar and GPS at the Helheim glacier.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)
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At Helheim, the ice, snow and water seem to go on and on, sandwiched by bare dirt mountains that now show no signs of ice but get covered in the winter. The only thing that gives visitors a sense of scale is the helicopter carrying Holland and his team. It’s dwarfed by the landscape, an almost imperceptible red speck against the ice cliffs where Helheim stops and its remnants begin.

Those ice cliffs are 225 feet to 328 feet high. Just next to them are Helheim’s remnants — sea ice, snow and icebergs — forming a mostly white expanse, with a mishmash of shapes and textures. Water frequently pools amid that white, glimmering a near-fluorescent blue that resembles Kool-Aid.

As pilot Martin Norregaard tries to land his helicopter on the broken-up part of what used to be glacier — a mush called a melange — he looks for ice specked with dirt, a sign that it’s firm enough for the chopper. Pure white ice could conceal a deep crevasse that leads to a cold and deadly plunge.

Greenland glaciers
Brian Rougeux, part of an NYU team studying Helheim, installs a GPS antenna on the glacier.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Holland and his team climb out to install radar and GPS to track the ice movement and help explain why salty, warm, once-tropical water attacking the glacier’s “underbelly” has been bubbling to the surface.

“It takes a really long time to grow an ice sheet, thousands and thousands of years, but they can be broken up or destroyed quite rapidly,” Holland said.

Holland, like Willis, suspects that warm, salty water that comes in part from the Gulf Stream is playing a bigger role than previously thought in melting Greenland’s ice.

If that’s the case, that’s probably bad news for the planet because it means faster and more melting and higher sea level rise. By the year 2100, Greenland alone could cause three or four feet of sea level rise, Willis said.

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So it’s crucial to know how much of a role the air above and the water below play.

“What we want for this is an ice sheet forecast,” Holland said.

Greenland glaciers
A helicopter flies over hundreds of icebergs floating near the Helheim Glacier in Greenland.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

In this remote landscape, sound travels easily for miles. Every several minutes there’s a faint rumbling that sounds like thunder. But it’s not. It’s ice cracking.

In tiny Kulusuk, about a 40-minute helicopter ride away, Mugu Utuaq says the winter that used to last as much as 10 months when he was a boy can now be as short as five months. That matters to him because as the fourth-ranked dogsledder in Greenland, he has 23 dogs and needs to race them.

They can’t race in the summer, but they still have to eat. So Utuaq and friends go whale hunting with rifles in small boats. If they succeed, the dogs can eat whale.

Greenland glaciers
Mugu Utuaq, left, reloads his rifle as he hunts whales near Kulusuk, Greenland. A dogsledder, Utuaq needs whale meat to feed his 23 dogs.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

“People are getting rid of their dogs because there’s no season,” said Yewlin, who goes by one name. He used to run a sled dog team for tourists at a hotel in neighboring Tasiilaq, but they no longer can do that.

The melting glaciers, diminished ice and warmer weather are much different from his childhood, said Kulusuk Mayor Justus Paulsen, who is 58. Sure, it means more fuel is needed for boats to get around, but that’s OK, he said.

“We like it because we like to have a summer,” Paulsen said.

Greenland glaciers
Large icebergs float away as the sun rises near Kulusuk, Greenland.
(Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Holland looks out at Helheim Glacier from his base camp and sees the bigger picture. And it’s not good, he said. Not for here. Not for Earth as a whole.

“It’s kind of nice to have a planet with glaciers around,” Holland said.

Borenstein writes for the Associated Press.


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