Green­land is melt­ing

The Prince George Citizen - - Front Page -

HELHEIM GLACIER, Green­land – 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 is track­ing what’s hap­pen­ing in Green­land from both above and below, calls it “the end of the planet.” He is re­fer­ring to ge­og­ra­phy more than the fu­ture. Yet in many ways this place is where the planet’s warmer and watery fu­ture is be­ing writ­ten.

It is so warm here, just in­side the Arc­tic Cir­cle, 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 10.7 C.

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

Sum­mer this year is hit­ting Green­land hard with record-shat­ter­ing heat and ex­treme melt. By the end of the sum­mer, about 400 bil­lion met­ric tons of ice – maybe more – will have melted or calved off Green­land’s gi­ant ice sheet, sci­en­tists es­ti­mate. That’s enough wa­ter to flood the coun­try of Greece about 35 cen­time­tres deep.

In just the five days from July 31 to Aug. 3, more than 53 bil­lion met­ric tons melted from the sur­face. That’s over 40 bil­lion tons more than the av­er­age for this time of year. And that 53 bil­lion tons doesn’t even count the huge calv­ing events or the warm wa­ter eat­ing away at the glaciers from below, which may be a huge fac­tor.

And one of the places hit hard­est this hot Green­land sum­mer is here on the south­east­ern edge of the gi­ant frozen is­land: Helheim, one of Green­land’s fastest-re­treat­ing glaciers, has shrunk about 10 kilo­me­tres since sci­en­tists came here in 2005.

Sev­eral sci­en­tists, such as NASA oceanograp­her Josh Willis, who is also in Green­land, study­ing melt­ing ice from above, said what’s hap­pen­ing is a com­bi­na­tion of 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.

Sum­mit Sta­tion, a re­search camp nearly 3.2 km 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.

This year is com­ing near but not quite pass­ing the ex­treme sum­mer of 2012 – Green­land’s worst year in mod­ern his­tory for melt­ing, sci­en­tists re­port.

“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.

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 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 some­where be­tween 70 and 100 me­tres 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 pools ap­pear amid that white, glim­mer­ing a near-flu­o­res­cent blue that re­sem­bles wind­shield wiper fluid or 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 to set down on. Pure white ice could con­ceal a deep crevasse that leads to a cold and deadly plunge.

Hol­land and 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 NASA’s Willis, sus­pects that warm, salty wa­ter that comes in part from the Gulf Stream in North Amer­ica is play­ing a big­ger role than pre­vi­ously thought in melt­ing Green­land’s ice. And 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. Willis said that by the year 2100, Green­land alone could cause more than one me­tre of sea level rise.

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.

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, which this day they didn’t, the dogs can eat whale.

“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 neigh­bour­ing Tasi­ilaq, but they no longer can do that.

Yes, the melt­ing glaciers, less ice and warmer weather are no­tice­able and much dif­fer­ent from his child­hood, said Ku­lusuk Mayor Jus­tus Paulsen, 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.

But 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.

AP PHOTO

Large Ice­bergs float away Fri­day as the sun rises near Ku­lusuk, Green­land. Sci­en­tists are hard at work, try­ing to un­der­stand the alarm­ingly rapid melt­ing of the ice.

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