Focus Greenland – Wildfires, record ‘melts’ and boggy permafrost

By Kate Goldstone

*    http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/greenland-population/

**  https://theconversation.com/greenland-how-rapid-climate-change-on-worlds-largest-island-will-affect- us-all-82675

*** https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland_ice_sheet

“In some places climate change is an undeniable fact of everyday life. One of these places is Greenland.” – Visit Greenland.  (link to https://visitgreenland.com/about-greenland/the-guide-to-climate-change-in-greenland/)

Greenland is the world’s biggest island. It’s a Danish territory that enjoys limited self-government and has its own parliament. In 2018 just 56,000 people lived there*, not a lot. So does it really matter if climate change melts the ice that smothers this extraordinarily wild, remote place? As it turns out, a fast-melting Greenland will have a dramatic effect on the rest of the world. Here’s a quick look at the potential damage caused by global warming in Greenland.

Climate change – Greenland in context**

Greenland’s vast ice sheet covers 80% of the island, acting like an enormous mirror reflecting the sun’s heat back out into space. The resulting ‘Albedo effect’ cools the earth’s surface. When there’s no snow, there’s no Albedo effect and the surface of the earth warms faster.

Greenland’s position on the globe, in the North Atlantic, matters as well, since the meltwater affects the normal circulation of the ocean currents. And it matters even more when you consider most of the island’s ice is more than a kilometre deep. That’s an awful lot of water. As Wikipedia says***, if the entire 2,850,000 cubic kilometres of Greenland’s ice were to melt, global sea levels would rise 7.2m (24 feet), leaving many of the world’s greatest coastal cities, including London and New York, underwater.

Greenland is particularly vulnerable to climate change. In fact temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice the rate of the global average, and not a month seems to go by without some weather record or another being broken. One of the most recent was a proper shocker, a highly unusual and very large wildfire whose cause has been laid at the feet of global warming. The drier the land gets, the more runaway wildfires we’ll see in Greenland.

It looks like some frightening climate-led trends are emerging in Greenland. Take the fourteen years between 2002 and 2016, when Greenland lost around 269 gigatonnes of ice every year, one gigatonne being a billion tonnes. In 2012 they saw an exceptionally severe melting season, with 97% of ice surfaces melting at one time or another through the year. When the snow actually melted on top of the 3km high summit of the island, scientists were astonished.

The big warm-up carries on. April 2016 delivered abnormally high temperatures and the island’s earliest ever ‘melt’, a day when more than 10% of the ice sheet’s entire surface turned to water. While early melts like this aren’t catastrophic, they do reveal how very quickly and dramatically the ice sheet responds to temperature hikes.

Iceland’s permafrost is thawing at its top level, leaving more and more of the island boggy, damp, and perfect for disease-carrying mosquitoes.  The underlying permafrost reaches as deep as 100m and while it’s permanently frozen right now, there’s no reason to believe it’ll stay that way. The molten ‘active’ layer of permafrost is currently growing by around one and a half centimetres a year, a trend that’ll continue unless we start to reverse climate change.

Experts predict Arctic air temperatures will rise by anything from two degrees Centigrade and seven and a half Centigrade by the end of the century, revealing more than 1,500 billion tonnes of organic matter that has remained frozen solid for many thousands of years… until now. Melting it means the CO2 and methane it contains will be released into the atmosphere to cause yet more global warming.

Glaciers tell us a lot. Following their movement is a reliable way to spot climate change in action.  The magnificent Ilulissat Glacier, in West Greenland, is the world’s fastest moving glacier and Greenland’s biggest contributor to worldwide sea level rise.  May 2008 saw it ‘calve’ the biggest chunk of ice ever recorded on film, an event lasting more than an hour that left a vast three-mile-wide scar. Early 2019 saw even worse news emerge, with a study showing that the biggest ice losses between 2003 and 2013 happening in the south west of the island, hinting that ice is melting directly into the sea, via rivers, avoiding becoming part of the glacier altogether.   

Last but never least, polar bears. Since 1979 the sea ice around Greenland has decreased by just under seven and a half percent, which is already badly affecting polar bears. Scientists predict a 30% drop in polar bear numbers over the next few decades, leaving us with fewer than 9,000 of these precious creatures left on earth.

We’ll leave the last word to the Visit Greenland website: “The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, and is experiencing some of the most intense effects of climate change, with southwest Greenland seeing the most rapid warming (about 3°C during the past 7 years). In July 2013, the temperature at Maniitsoq airport, just beneath the Arctic Circle in west Greenland, was recorded at 25.9°C. This is the highest temperature ever recorded in Greenland.”

Greenland might be home to fewer than 60,000 people. But the effects of climate change on the island will have an impact on us all, wherever on our lovely blue planet we happen to live. Politicians have failed miserably. Now it’s down to us to bring global warming to an end.

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