Greenland loses enough ice to fill 7.2 million Olympic swimming pools in three days

Greenland loses enough ice to fill 7.2 million Olympic swimming pools in three days
Image via Jonas Tufvesson/Shutterstock.
World

Several days of above-average temperatures in northern Greenland caused rapid melting of the country's precarious ice sheet this past weekend, underscoring why climate scientists and campaigners are demanding more ambitious policies to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, the primary source of planet-wrecking emissions.

"The amount of ice that melted in Greenland between July 15 and 17 alone—6 billion tons of water per day—would be enough to fill 7.2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools," CNN reported Wednesday, citing findings from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado.

That's enough to cover all of West Virginia in a foot of water, the outlet noted. Last week, the state's right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin refused to support any clean energy provisions in his party's floundering reconciliation bill, which needs 50 votes to pass in the evenly split upper chamber.

"The northern melt this past week is not normal, looking at 30 to 40 years of climate averages," said Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at NSIDC. "But melting has been on the increase, and this event was a spike in melt."

Temperatures in northern Greenland have been hitting around 60ºF, or 10 degrees warmer than usual, in recent days—alarming scientists who are collecting data on the ice sheet.

"It definitely worries me," said Kutalmis Saylam, a scientist at the University of Texas who is currently conducting research in Greenland. "Yesterday we could wander around in our t-shirts—that was not really expected."

The Arctic, which has been heating up for over a century due to surging greenhouse gas pollution, is one of the fastest-warming regions in the world. Dangerous feedback loops are of particular concern. The replacement of reflective sea ice with dark ocean water leads to greater absorption of solar energy, and the thawing of permafrost portends the release of additional carbon dioxide and methane—both leading to accelerated temperature rise that triggers further melting, defrosting, and destablization.

In December, researchers estimated that the Arctic has been heating up four times faster than the rest of the globe over the past three decades. Another recent study found that 2021 was the 25th consecutive year in which Greenland's ice sheet lost more mass during the melting season than it gained during the winter. Rainfall is now projected to become more common in the Arctic than snowfall decades sooner than previously expected.

"Each summer, scientists worry that they will see a repeat of the record melting that occurred in 2019, when 532 billion tons of ice flowed out into the sea," CNN reported. "An unexpectedly hot spring and a July heat wave that year caused almost the entire ice sheet's surface to melt. Global sea level rose permanently by 1.5 millimeters as a result."

Ice melt in the region equivalent to more than six feet of global sea level rise is likely already locked in, experts say. But each fraction of a degree of warming makes a difference, so the stakes for adequate climate action are still immense even if a tipping point has been reached.

If Greenland's ice sheet were to disintegrate completely, sea levels would rise more than 22 feet—"enough to double the frequency of storm-surge flooding in many of the world's largest coastal cities" by the end of the century, scientists have warned.

By 2050, 150 million people worldwide could be displaced from their homes just by rising sea levels, according to some estimates.

Without a robust international effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions, that number could be far higher.

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