Quantcast
Climate
Melt pond on the Greenland ice sheet. NASA / Michael Studinger

Lakes on Greenland Ice Sheet Drain in Chain Reaction, Destabilizing Sheet and Raising Sea Levels

A study published Wednesday in Nature Communications signals bad news for the Greenland ice sheet.


A research team led by the University of Cambridge found that the lakes of meltwater that form on the ice sheet in the summer drain in a chain reaction that increases the flow of the ice sheet, destabilizing it and increasing sea level rise, the University of Cambridge reported in a press release.

It had long been known that these lakes could drain quickly on an individual basis. They can last months, then drain through more than one kilometer (approximately 0.621 miles) of ice within hours.

However, this study used a combination of observation and three-dimensional modeling to show that the lakes do not drain in isolation. Instead, the melting of one lake can trigger the melting of lakes up to 80 kilometers (approximately 49.71 miles) away.

The process begins when a lake drains and the water it contained ends up on the bottom of the ice sheet. This causes the sheet to flow faster, which destabilizes it and leads to the formation of more fractures. Other lakes then drain through these new fractures in a chain reaction that can speed the flow of the ice sheet by up to 400 percent.

A model of the lake-melting chain-reaction process. Nature Communications

Researchers observed 124 lakes drain within a span of five days, and found evidence for crevices opening 135 kilometers (approximately 83.9 miles) inland from the ice sheet's edge, which is farther than thought possible.

The study therefore contradicts the findings of the Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2014, which held that melt water on the surface of the ice sheet did not impact its flow.

"This growing network of melt lakes, which currently extends more than 100 kilometres inland and reaches elevations as high as 2,000 metres above sea level, poses a threat for the long-term stability of the Greenland ice sheet," the study's lead author and member of Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute Dr. Poul Christoffersen said in the press release.

This isn't the first study in recent years to suggest the Greenland ice sheet is in more trouble than previously believed. In 2016, scientists found the ice sheet was melting 7 percent faster than they had thought.

While the Polar Portal reported that the ice sheet actually gained a small amount of mass in 2017 due to heavy winter snows and a cool summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated that the sheet could only regain the mass it has lost since 2002 after 80 years like this one.

According to Global Citizen, the ice sheet, which is seven times the size of the United Kingdom and two miles thick, is currently contributing to global sea level rise at a rate of one millimeter (approximately 0.04 inches) per year. If all the ice in the sheet were to melt, it would raise sea levels by more than 20 feet.

This is unlikely to happen any time soon, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about.

"When we say the ice sheet is melting faster, no one saying it's all going to melt in next decade or the next 100 years or even the next 1,000 years but it doesn't all have to melt for more people to be in danger," Dr. Joe Cook, a glacial microbiologist at Sheffield University, told Global Citizen. "Only a small amount has to melt to threaten millions in coastal communities around world."

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Popular
The Revelator

Interactive Map: Air Pollution in 2100

By Dipika Kadaba

Having a little trouble breathing lately? That's no surprise. Air pollution is already bad in many parts of the country, and climate change is only going to make it worse. Even though many industries are reducing their emissions, a warming climate could actually offset these reductions by intensifying the rates of chemical reactions and accumulation of pollutants in the environment.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
ddukang / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Is Apple Cider Vinegar Good for You? A Doctor Weighs In

By Gabriel Neal

When my brother and I were kids back in the '80s, we loved going to Long John Silver's.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals

Dumpster Debacle Distracts From Serious Spike in Whale Deaths

This week, a video of a failed attempt to put a dead, 4,000-pound whale into a tiny dumpster made the rounds on the internet, garnering chuckles and comparisons to Peter Griffin forklifting and impaling a beached sperm whale on Family Guy.

The juvenile minke whale washed up on Jenness Beach in Rye, New Hampshire on Monday morning, NBC 10 Boston reported. It was found with entanglement wounds, so researchers with the Seacoast Science Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wanted to move the carcass from the beach to a lab for a necropsy to study its death.

Keep reading... Show less
Adventure
Muir Woods, which costs $10 for entry, will have free entry on Sept. 22. m01229 / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Visit Any National Park for Free This Saturday to Celebrate 25th National Public Lands Day

If you're stuck for plans this weekend, we suggest escaping your city or town for the great outdoors.

This Saturday marks the 25th National Public Lands Day, organized by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
A glacier flows towards East Antarctica. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / CC BY 2.0

Temperatures Possible This Century Could Melt Parts of East Antarctic Ice Sheet, Raise Sea Levels 10+ Feet

A section of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet that contains three to four meters (approximately 10 to 13 feet) of potential sea level rise could melt if temperatures rise to just two degrees above pre-industrial levels, a study published in Nature Wednesday found.

Researchers at Imperial College London, the University of Queensland, and other institutions in New Zealand, Japan and Spain looked at marine sediments to assess the behavior of the Wilkes Subglacial Basin during warmer periods of the Pleistocene and found evidence of melting when temperatures in Antarctica were at least two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels for periods of 2,500 years or more.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Oil well in North Dakota. Tim Evanson / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Pipeline Leaks 63,840 Gallons of Produced Water in North Dakota

A pipeline released 63,840 gallons (1,520 barrels) of produced water that contaminated rangeland in Dunn County, North Dakota, the Bismarck Tribune reported, citing officials with the North Dakota Department of Health.

Produced water is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction, and can contain drilling chemicals if fracking was used.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Insights
Residents stand in a long queue to fill water containers on May 27 in Shimla, India. Deepak Sansta / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

World Peace Requires Access to Safe Water

International Peace Day is Sept. 21. Mekela Panditharatne, attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, submitted the following op-ed to EcoWatch in commemoration.

In drought-ravaged East Africa, the cracks in the plains echo the fault lines splitting tribes.

Across the globe, the devastation of deadly brawls is being exacerbated by tensions over access to water. Water crises, often worsened by governance failures, can portend warning signs for instability and conflict. This year, the World Resources Institute cautioned that water stress is growing globally, "with 33 countries projected to face extremely high stress in 2040." The effects of such water stress span the gamut from civil unrest to open warfare.

Keep reading... Show less
Food

How Your Personality Type Could Influence Your Food Choices

By Melissa Kravitz

"You are what you eat" may be one of the oldest sayings ever to be repeated around the dinner table, but can you also eat what you are?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!