Next century's most important place in the world--Greenland?

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:58 PM GMT on December 21, 2007

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If one had to pick the region of the world most likely to influence the course of human history this century, the Middle East would be the obvious choice, due to its political volatility and rich oil resources. However, the Middle East may have a significant challenger next century from a seemingly unlikely place--Greenland. Why Greenland? Well, the Greenland ice sheet holds enough water to raise global sea level 7 meters (23 feet). There are worrisome signs that the ice sheet might be more vulnerable than we thought to significant melting near the end of the century, according to research results presented at last week's annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco. The meeting is the world's largest annual gathering of climate change scientists.

For climate change scientists, Greenland is clearly the most important place in the world. You could tell this by the way glaciers with unpronounceable names like "Kangerdlugssuaq" rolled off their tongues in a smooth, practiced manner at talks given at the AGU meeting. At least 120 presentations focused on the Arctic or Greenland, and fully 52 of these concerned Greenland. I attended roughly 20 of these talks, and most of the presenters made it clear that they were quite concerned about the future of Arctic sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet, particularly in light of the astounding Arctic sea ice melt that occurred in 2007. A number of these talks raised the possibility that we've reached a tipping point in the Arctic. A complete loss of summertime sea ice may occur between 2013 and 2040, three of the presenters said, with the resulting warming dooming the Greenland ice sheet to a slow but inevitable melting process over a period of centuries. None of the presenters expressed the view that the current melting of the Greenland ice sheet and Arctic sea ice was due to a natural cycle that would completely halt or reverse in the next few years or decades.

At a talk on "The Recent Arctic Warm Period", Dr. Jim Overland, an Arctic expert with NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, didn't offer his view on whether a tipping point had been reached. Instead, he asked the audience to vote. The options he presented:

* A The melt back of Arctic sea ice observed in 2007 is permanent and will not lessen.
* B Ice coverage will partially recover but continue to decrease.
* C The ice would recover to 1980s levels but then continue to decline over the coming century.

Both Options A and B had audience support, but only one brave soul voted for the most conservative option C.


Figure 1. A research submarine breaks through the Arctic ice. Image credit: Bernard Coakley.

The latest news from Greenland
I was amazed see the tremendous breadth and intensity of research efforts focused on Greenland and the Arctic, presented at AGU. Extra funding has been given to research efforts as part of the International Polar Year (IPY) program, scheduled to run March 2007 through 2009. Satellites like Icesat and GRACE measure the extent of Greenland's ice from above, aided by a fleet of small and large research aircraft. Scientists now have unmanned aircraft that can use runways or be launched by slingshot that can measure the extent of Greenland's melt water lakes. The air armada will be joined next year by the Total Pole Airship, the first blimp used for Arctic studies. Manned and unmanned submarines measure the thickness of the sea ice surrounding the island, and both permanent and temporary bases dotted across Greenland and the polar sea ice house scientists doing land-based studies. Ships and buoys also add data from the ocean areas.

A short list of the results presented at AGU all point to an ice sheet in peril:

- Melting of snow above 2000 meters elevation on Greenland reached a new record in 2007 (Tedesco, 2007).

- Leigh Stearns of the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute showed that the contribution of Greenland melting to global sea level rise has doubled in the last five years. According to the 2007 IPCC report (see Figure 4.18), Greenland may account for as much as 10% of the total global annual sea rise of about 3-4 mm/year (approximately 1.5 inches per decade).

- Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) have warmed over 5° C (9° F) over the waters west of Greenland since 1990 (Figure 1, to the right). This has caused the ice-free season to increase by over 60 days per year along the coast.

- The Greenland ice sheet has experienced conditions as warm as those today in the past. Lowell et al. (2007) found organic remains in eastern Greenland that had just been exposed by melting ice, and dated these remains at between A.D. 800 to 1014. Thus, this portion of Greenland was ice-free about 1000 years ago, and temperatures were presumably similar to today's. Erik the Red took advantage of this warm period to establish the first Norse settlements in Greenland around 950 A.D. However, the climate cooled after 1200 A.D., and the Norse settlements disappeared by 1550.

For more information, see our new Greenland feature on our expanding climate change page.

Jeff Masters

References
Lowell, T.V., et al., 2007, Organic Remains from the Istorvet Ice Cap, Liverpool Land, East Greenland: A Record of Late Holocene Climate Change,, Eos Trans. AGU, 88(52), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract C13A-04.

Stearns, L.A., and G.S. Hamilton, 2007, New States of Behavior: Current Status of Outlet Glaciers in Southeast Greenland and the Potential for Similar Changes Elsewhere, Eos Trans. AGU, 88(52), Fall Meet. Suppl., Abstract C13A-06.

Tedesco, M., "A New Record in 2007 for Melting in Greenland," EOS, 88:39, 2007, 383.

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94. Patrap
11:32 AM CST on December 21, 2007
Pablo could be a remnant of Karen regenerated...maybe.
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93. Bonedog
12:30 PM EST on December 21, 2007

5. Bonedog 9:20 AM EST on December 21, 2007
4. P451 9:11 AM EST on December 21, 2007
Was that system that crossed the florida panhandle a little hybrid in nature?
13. HIEXPRESS 10:08 AM EST on December 21, 2007
Let's NAME IT. LOL

15. Bonedog 10:11 AM EST on December 21, 2007
sub-tropical hybrid storm Pablo
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92. NEwxguy
5:27 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
.DAYS TWO THROUGH SEVEN...SATURDAY THROUGH THURSDAY

LATE SUNDAY THERE IS A RISK OF MINOR POOR DRAINAGE AND URBAN FLOODING...AS
HEAVY SHOWERS COMBINE WITH A BRIEF PERIOD OF SIGNIFICANT SNOW MELT.
IN ADDITION...A WIND ADVISORY MAY BE NEEDED LATE SUNDAY ALONG THE
COAST FOR STRONG SOUTH WINDS FOLLOWED BY STRONG WEST WINDS AT NIGHT.

Hmmmm,Looks like Tom Brady is going to have another interesting day.
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91. Bonedog
12:27 PM EST on December 21, 2007
we know Gulf we were making a joke.
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89. Weather456
1:22 PM AST on December 21, 2007
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
88. BahaHurican
12:02 PM EST on December 21, 2007
Afternoon, everybody.

I wanted to give information about Hybrid Pablo passing through Nassau, but our power has been out since about 6:30 this morning, before I got up.

We had some heavy weather here from about that time until about 8:30 or so - rain (heavy for December) and some gusty winds - but by about 9:30 or so everything was just about done. I haven't been outside yet, but everything's prolly already dry out there. Currently it's sunny with light winds, looks like from the E and SE.

ON the blog topic, I see people aren't ignoring the record of the Norse trips to the new world, and certainly it seems Columbus will lose his place as the original "discoverer" of the American continent from the European perspective . . . LOL

Certainly I don't think even the most rabid MMGW theorist would deny that warming and cooling are cyclic events; I think a larger concern is whether the current warming trend is occurring "naturally". I. E. when the last warming took place in the Artic, how long did it take to get to the stage where the Norse found things? A century? Three? Five? This would give us a better idea of whether the contributions of humans to GW is significant.
Member Since: October 25, 2005 Posts: 19 Comments: 22305
87. cajunkid
11:10 AM CST on December 21, 2007
My herd says it hot down here in LA.

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86. Weather456
1:01 PM AST on December 21, 2007


Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
85. cajunkid
11:03 AM CST on December 21, 2007
I only trust the Wookies



to stop this


from happing.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

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84. Bonedog
11:59 AM EST on December 21, 2007
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83. Weather456
12:54 PM AST on December 21, 2007
Buoy 41010

Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
81. cajunkid
10:52 AM CST on December 21, 2007
GulfScotsman, I don't know which side is worse.
If you ask me, both serve the Emperor.

Oh, and something weather.


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80. LakeShadow
4:45 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
Link

its a nice song.
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79. Bonedog
11:47 AM EST on December 21, 2007
Yeah folks, dont forget about that when you're voting in the primaries!

yep Im voting for Bag Of Leaves. About just as good as the others
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78. LakeShadow
4:42 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
One terrorist attack and one CAT 5 Hurricane just about unglued this place.

Yeah folks, dont forget about that when you're voting in the primaries!
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77. Bonedog
11:40 AM EST on December 21, 2007
earth seen from Cassini

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76. LakeShadow
4:38 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
ROFLMAO!!!!
I like how Cheney has embraced his evilness...
Show signs of him finally facing reality...
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75. Floodman
4:37 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
Damn, Bonedog...put it into perspective for us, can you? Think I'll go buy myself a bunch of BBQ sauce...I want to go out glazed and delicious, if you don't mind LOL
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74. Bonedog
11:36 AM EST on December 21, 2007
right NE isnt it
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72. LakeShadow
4:36 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
nice, gulf...you rock!
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70. NEwxguy
4:33 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
LOL,Bone,now thats humbling
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69. Bonedog
11:30 AM EST on December 21, 2007
62. NEwxguy 4:24 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
I like to thinks of humbling things like that to put our existence in perspective


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68. Bonedog
11:29 AM EST on December 21, 2007
yea NE I was thinking the same thing. Alot of iced over storm drains even by me
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67. Floodman
4:28 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
62. NEwxguy 4:24 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
I like to thinks of humbling things like that to put our existence in perspective


Humbling AND liberating
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66. LakeShadow
4:19 PM GMT on December 21, 2007


Now's our opportunity to strike!
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65. NEwxguy
4:27 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
Bone,don't like the looks of that,there is no place for the run off up here,
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64. Floodman
4:26 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
Feldspar, it's not the natural component that causes the alarm...it's the atrificial one that makes people worry; they're not worrying too much though...have you seen the SUVs on the road?
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63. Bonedog
11:26 AM EST on December 21, 2007
that was the 5 day

here is for 12z sunday to 12z monday only

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62. NEwxguy
4:25 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
I like to thinks of humbling things like that to put our existence in perspective.
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61. Bonedog
11:23 AM EST on December 21, 2007
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60. Bonedog
11:23 AM EST on December 21, 2007
Is it that hard to accept that it can and will happen again?? Must we run around like chickens with our heads cut off in abject terror over a natural phenomenon?

It is when thats whats beatin into the heads of people.

Self thinkers understand its the sheep that dont
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59. NEwxguy
4:24 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
Hey Bone,have you seen any predictions on how much rain to expect on Sunday?Could cause some problems up here.
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58. Floodman
4:22 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
NE, we are less than a grain of sand on the shores of the Universe...kinda cool, huh?
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57. NEwxguy
4:20 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
we are just a grain of sand on the shores of the universe??????
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54. Bonedog
11:12 AM EST on December 21, 2007
53. Patrap 11:12 AM EST on December 21, 2007
Earth Imaged from the Mars Spirit Rover


Makes you realize how small we real are especially in the grand scheme of things

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53. Patrap
10:10 AM CST on December 21, 2007
Earth Imaged from the Mars Spirit Rover..Link

This is the first image ever taken of Earth from the surface of a planet beyond the Moon. It was taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit one hour before sunrise on the 63rd martian day, or sol, of its mission. The image is a mosaic of images taken by the rover's navigation camera showing a broad view of the sky, and an image taken by the rover's panoramic camera of Earth. The contrast in the panoramic camera image was increased two times to make Earth easier to see. Link
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52. Bonedog
11:09 AM EST on December 21, 2007
LOL Gulf. Well if a lazer comes shooting out of a crater and blasts the thing from the sky then we will know aliens are real LOL
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50. Bonedog
11:05 AM EST on December 21, 2007
new 1 in 75 is considered high probablity in astronomical terms.

We will get better data as the month progresses as we get a better handle on the exact orbital track
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48. Bonedog
11:01 AM EST on December 21, 2007
LOL Gulf :)

If it does happen will be interesting non-the-less
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47. newt3d
3:58 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
I wouldn't call that Mars asteroid impact likely, best I heard was a 1 in 75 chance.
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46. Bonedog
10:57 AM EST on December 21, 2007
Yea Pat they say if it does impact the rovers will be able to capture the after effects because it is supposed to be close to Opertunity.
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45. LakeShadow
4:00 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
gulfscotsman, you need an avatar...here's an image for ya!
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44. NEwxguy
3:59 PM GMT on December 21, 2007
after this december weather,wish some GW would visit New England.
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About

Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.