Greenland ice melting


The unprecedented loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica in the last 30 years is an alarming reality, according to a group of international scientists who analyse satellite data.

If all the ice losses from these regions were shaped into an ice cube, it would tower a staggering 20 kilometers high. This shocking finding indicates that the melting of Earth’s ice sheets has entered a phase of accelerated deterioration.

Between 1992 and 2022, the frozen poles of our planet experienced a mind-boggling mass loss of 7,560 billion tonnes. Disturbingly, seven of the most severe melting years occurred within the last decade alone. This rapid decline in ice mass from Greenland and Antarctica is now responsible for a quarter of all global sea-level rise—a contribution five times greater than it was three decades ago.

The latest assessment from the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise (Imbie), a project supported by the US and European space agencies, provides crucial insight into the state of the planet’s ice sheets. This report, the third of its kind, meticulously analyses and reviews satellite measurements from approximately 50 spacecraft missions conducted since 1992. This pivotal year marked the commencement of regular overflights by instruments specifically designed to monitor the elevation and velocity of ice at the poles.

The study reveals that the 7,560 billion tonnes of ice lost during the investigation period resulted in a sea-level rise of 21 millimetres. Greenland’s ice loss accounted for nearly two-thirds (13.5mm) of this increase, while Antarctica contributed one-third (7.4mm) through its melting processes.

“All this has profound implications for coastal communities around the world and their risk of being exposed to flooding and erosion,” said Dr Inès Otosaka from the UK’s Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM), who led the latest assessment.

“It’s really important that we have robust estimates for the future contribution to sea-level rise from the ice sheets so that we can go to these communities and say, ‘Yes, we understand what is happening and we can now start to plan mitigations’,” she said.

The most catastrophic year for ice loss was 2019, with a combined loss of 612 billion tonnes. A substantial portion of this loss—444 billion tonnes—occurred due to an exceptional heat wave that swept through the Arctic during its summer season.

Antarctica, in particular, has experienced significant melting, primarily in its peninsula region—a narrow extension stretching towards South America—and its western section, where warm ocean waters erode the ice margin from below. The rise in sea levels, a consequence of ice sheet melting, results from various factors, including the expansion of water as it warms, the runoff of meltwaters from glaciers outside the ice sheets, and changes in the amount of water stored on land.

In the early 1990s, ice sheet melting contributed only a small fraction (5.6%) to the overall sea-level rise budget. However, it has now surged to account for more than a quarter (25.6%) of the total, marking a five-fold increase. This alarming trend underscores the urgent need for collective action to mitigate climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and implement measures to preserve our planet’s precious ice sheets. Failure to address these critical issues could have far-reaching consequences for coastal communities and ecosystems worldwide.

“Accelerating ice sheet losses mean we’re looking in the next decade at a marked rise in the rate of sea-level rise,” said Prof Andrew Shepherd, from Northumbria University and the founder of Imbie.

“In past decades, it’s been about 3mm a year. Soon, we will see 4mm, 5mm, 6mm per year; and this will be a big psychological change from what we’ve been used to.”



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One Comment
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