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Greenland Lost 600 Billion Tons of Ice Last Summer, Raising Sea Levels, NASA Study Finds

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Umiamako Glacier enters the ocean in the west of Greenland. E.RIGNOT / NASA

Greenland experienced an unusually warm summer in 2019, which caused the world's largest island to lose 600 billion tons of ice and raised sea levels by 0.2 of an inch, according to a NASA study released yesterday. That amount of ice loss more than doubled Greenland's 2002-2019 annual average.


The data comes from the joint U.S.-German space mission known as Grace-FO, a pair of satellites that circle the globe and sense the variations in mass that correspond to Earth's gravity field, according to the BBC. The satellites are particularly adept at sensing tiny changes in the Earth's gravitational field caused by ice gain or loss. They have proven themselves useful in detecting groundwater storage around the globe, according to the Washington Post.

The study also looked at Antarctica, noting that it continues to lose its ice mass, particularly in the Amundsen Sea Embayment and the Antarctic Peninsula on the western part of the continent, according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"We knew this past summer had been particularly warm in Greenland, melting every corner of the ice sheet," lead author Isabella Velicogna, senior project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at University of California, Irvine, said in a statement. "But the numbers really are enormous."

The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. It tracked ice loss in Greenland dating back to 2002, using information from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (Grace) satellites, which went out of commission in 2017, and the new Grace-FO satellites, which launched in 2018. The FO stands for Follow On, as The Washington Post reported.

The satellites revealed that from 2002 to 2019, Greenland lost 4,550 billion tons of ice, for an average of 261 billion tons every year, according to The Washington Post. 2012 and 2019 were the two largest melt years in that time frame, the BBC reported.

Velicogna told The Washington Post what made 2019 so different in Greenland was that there was a lot of melting from the glaciers in the north and northeastern glaciers, which is unusual.

"And, so, basically, we have melting all around the ice sheet," she said.

In the coastal town of Ilulissat, not far from where the mighty Jakobshavn Glacier enters the ocean, temperatures reached into the high 20s Celsius this summer. The warm temperatures even reached the ice sheet's interior, which approached above freezing levels, the BBC reported.

"It's significant that we're now seeing melt and mass loss extending to Greenland's northern glaciers. All of Greenland contributed to the big summer melt of last year," Velicogna said, according to the BBC.

Robin Bell, an expert on ice sheet dynamics at Columbia University, to The Washington Post that the satellite data will help researchers improve the accuracy of their future sea-level rise estimates.

"This is a beautiful update of how we can really see how the ice sheets are changing…from the annual inhale and exhale as snow accumulates in the winter in Greenland and melts in the summer," she said.

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