Two trillion tons of land ice lost since 2003, rate of Greenland summer ice loss triples 2007 record

The AP reports on new data to be presented today at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union:

More than 2 trillion tons of land ice in Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have melted since 2003, according to new NASA satellite data that show the latest signs of what scientists say is global warming.

More than half of the loss of landlocked ice in the past five years has occurred in Greenland, based on measurements of ice weight by NASA’s GRACE satellite, said NASA geophysicist Scott Luthcke. The water melting from Greenland in the past five years would fill up about 11 Chesapeake Bays, he said, and the Greenland melt seems to be accelerating.

This staggering ice loss is all the more worrisome because it was not predicted by the IPCC’s climate models. As Penn State climatologist Richard Alley said in March 2006, the ice sheets appear to be shrinking “100 years ahead of schedule.” In 2001, the IPCC thought that neither Greenland nor Antarctica would lose significant mass by 2100. They both already are.

Even the 2007 IPCC report assumed very little contribution to sea level rise this century from Greenland and Antarctica, since it was based almost exclusively on studies done before 2006. And that’s of course why a US Geological Survey study concluded sea-level rise in 2100 will likely “substantially exceed” IPCC projections. For the most credible post-IPCC study see Startling new sea level rise research: “Most likely” 0.8 to 2.0 meters by 2100.”

One reason landlocked ice is flowing faster: The floating ice shelves that normally block that ice like a cork in a bottle are disappearing at a staggering rate. Ohio State researchers reported at the AGU meeting this week that “the amount of ice lost this summer is nearly three times what was lost one year ago“:

The loss of floating ice in 2008 pouring from Greenland’s glaciers would cover an area twice the size of Manhattan Island in the U.S., they said.

Jason Box, an associate professor of geography at Ohio State, said that the loss of ice since the year 2000 is 355.4 square miles (920.5 square kilometers), or more than 10 times the size of Manhattan.

“We now know that the climate doesn’t have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice,” Box said. “It has probably passed the point where it could maintain the mass of ice that we remember.

The accelerated loss of sea ice should come as no surprise given that another study presented at the AGU meeting found accelerated Arctic warming (see NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did”):

… parts of the Arctic north of Alaska were 9 to 10 degrees warmer this past fall, a strong early indication of what researchers call the Arctic amplification effect. That’s when the Arctic warms faster than predicted, and warming there is accelerating faster than elsewhere on the globe.

As sea ice melts, the Arctic waters absorb more heat in the summer, having lost the reflective powers of vast packs of white ice. That absorbed heat is released into the air in the fall. That has led to autumn temperatures in the last several years that are six to 10 degrees warmer than they were in the 1980s.

And that has led to the rapid sea ice loss:

Using daily images from instruments called MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) aboard two of NASA’s satellites, Box and his team are able to monitor changes in 32 of the largest glaciers along Greenland’s coast.They determined that during the summer of 2006-2007, the floating ice shelves at the seaward end of those glaciers had diminished by 24.29 square miles (62.9 square kilometers). But one year later — the summer of 2007-2008 – the ice loss had nearly tripled to nearly 71 square miles (183.8 square kilometers). Much of this additional loss is from a single large floating ice tongue called the Petermann Glacier.

Late this summer, the Ohio State researchers were able to watch as a massive 11-square-mile (29-square kilometer) chunk broke off from the tongue of the massive Petermann Glacier in Northern Greenland. At the time, they also noted that a massive crack further up the ice shelf suggested an even larger piece of ice would soon crack off.

Again, losing floating ice doesn’t directly raise sea levels, but it does open the floodgates for land ice to stream out faster, which is precisely what is happening.

In the 1990s, Greenland didn’t add to world sea level rise; now that island is adding about half a millimeter of sea level rise a year, NASA ice scientist Jay Zwally said in a telephone interview from the conference.

Between Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska, melting land ice has raised global sea levels about one-fifth of an inch in the past five years, Luthcke said. Sea levels also rise from water expanding as it warms.

And still I get people commenting here that the earth can’t be warming because, hey, it’s cold outside or because the most credible scientific organizations in the world occasionally make inconsequential mistakes that they quickly correct!

“The science is beyond dispute… Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response”

Related Posts:


20 Responses to Two trillion tons of land ice lost since 2003, rate of Greenland summer ice loss triples 2007 record

  1. Wonhyo says:

    “It [Greenland] has probably passed the point where it could maintain the mass of ice that we remember.”…the ice sheets appear to be shrinking “100 years ahead of schedule.”

    These two statements lead me to suspect 80% CO2 emission cuts by 2050 (with actual reductions starting only in 2030) will be too late. I’m thinking we need to cut 80% within 4 years to have a fighting chance of averting civilization-ending climate change.

    I realize this thought may be ridiculous from the point of view of political/social feasibility. From the point of view of what actually needs to be done, I’m I off base?

  2. Stuart says:

    I have a sinking feeling that the politicians will keep dragging their feet and nothing will get done that will have any real effect. I will keep trying to fight the good fight, but I feel more and more like one of the band on the Titanic.

    At least we have a few more years before the feedbacks really kick in, so enjoy civilization while it lasts, hug your kids if you have any, and try to get out into the wild as often as possible. I am glad I was able to see the Monteverde cloud forest – I don’t think it will survive long.

    I need a drink…

  3. TomG says:

    This Titanic is different.
    We’re still full speed ahead and the boys below decks are shovelling coal into the boilers for all they’re worth.

  4. John McCormick says:


    I agree with all you said.

    Climate Progress is a quality blog and we have Joe to thank for it. But, its readers have every degree of denial, optimism or pessimism. So, it is depressing to read your realistic appraisal of what you know and where you see the 6.6 billion of us are heading.

    Personally, I try to limit my carbon footprint every way I can but will not deny celebrating my mother’s birthday by flying to her FL home. Life is more complicated in this warming world but certain priorities must be met.

    Flying into and out of Miami airport is a confrontation with the reality that the state’s coastline has a deadline with inevitable sea level rise and in a time period coinciding with the massive expenditures the US will face as we retrofit our energy system and harden our defenses against climate change.

    This future will play itself out in steady increments of collapsing ecosystems, infrastructure and habitable regions. As those events unfold, the public will become rapidly more aware of the societal costs on climate change and the younger among us will react with more foresight and determination to arrest the problem of climate change because they will realize the water (euphemism) is rising faster and will engulf them and their families…unfortunately not in time…given what you and we know today.

    Nonetheless, there will come a time when the deniers will be publicly ridiculed and adaptation mitigation expenditures will be readily accepted as legitimate costs of survival.

    Our over 50+ generation can do much to ease their pain by dedicating ourselves to winning the political fight that sets America and the developing world on the path of survival as well.

    I offer this in the spirit of optimism while harboring your pessimism.

    We can only hope our progressive/liberal colleagues will give PEOB time to sort this out and chart our new direction.

    John McCormick

  5. Well said, John… I think you’re right on the money.

  6. Bob Wallace says:

    Well said John.

    I think of myself as a Vonnegut-optimist. If you read Cat’s Cradle you might recall his concept of “pool-pah”. A pool-pah is a “gift” from God which one can do nothing to avoid. It’s a shit storm that one must endure, wipe off the crap, and set about to get over it.

    I really doubt that mankind will escape some of this pool-pah which we have (largely unintentionally) created. We’re going to get it, we are most likely already getting it.

    That recognized, the best strategy IMO is to get busy and do as much as we can to minimize, or at the very minimum delay, the worst.

    Right now all we might be able to do is to fight a delaying action and give some creative people the opportunity to figure out a solution. But I think it best to put on our grownup panties and get to work rather than giving up and groveling in pessimism.

  7. David B. Benson says:

    Wonhyo — $600 billion a year is enough to not only permanently remove all current emissions of CO2 but also some small part of the old ones.

  8. Mark Shapiro says:

    As we head toward the darkest days of the year, literally and figuratively, here’s an aphorism to try out:

    Don’t fear the problem, and don’t fear the solutions.

    The first half is for us, the observers of the science. Don’t worry, keep working the problem. The second half is for the deniers/delayers/skeptics/neutrals. Remember, the Inhofes and others worry that “we” are going to control their lives and wreck the economy. Literally.

    So we have two rhetorical challenges. One: there’s a good reason that Joe’s hair is on fire. Two: the solutions mean jobs, efficiency, wealth creation, energy security, and better national security, with clean air thrown in for free.

    We’ll know we’re on track when we hear a coal or oil CEO saying, “I was wrong. Now what can I do to ease myself out of business (and into clean energy)?”

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    John, Bob, and David –

    Yes, yes, and yes. (I was obviously slow and missed your comments.)

    David –

    Yes, there are now two huge classes of solutions: getting on the glide path to zero carbon emissions (with efficiency, renewables, and conservation); and now also scrubbing out some CO2.

    Big jobs.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    MaMark Shapiro — The $600 billion figure is assuming the world continues to add about 37 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere yearly. I figure $555 billion per year to control that and the remaining $45 billion goes to taking some out.

    Once renewables, etc., begin to come online in a big way the first portion is less required.

  11. Stuart says:

    Thank you John, and everyone else too,

    Sometimes it all gets overwhelming, particularly with all the bad climate news this week, compounded with even the DJ’s on the local classic rock station joking about snow in Vegas and “where’s Al Gore now?”

    I apologize for the excess despair, and I hope the optimists are right and my gut is wrong. We have to play the hand we are dealt, and I will keep trying to do my part to reduce carbon emissions both in my home and in my community. My Anishinaabe and Norse ancestors would keep fighting in the face of daunting odds, and in that spirit I must keep fighting on.

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    I agree Mark…

    “We’ll know we’re on track when we hear a coal or oil CEO saying, “I was wrong. Now what can I do to ease myself out of business (and into clean energy)?”

    Would we make progress faster if we figured out a way to help these guys move their capital to clean energy production?

    Speed is worth something to us. Might it be in our best interest to pay to speed things up?

  13. Mark Shapiro says:

    Bob –

    Yes it would.

    If a coal company said they would stop putting capital expenditures in coal and switching to investing in wind, solar, or efficiency, I would vote to support that.

  14. jorleh says:

    Once again: why do you let the ice in Greenland fall to the sea and not take its potential energy for generating electricity and ice for fresh water for the world? I can´t understand the scientists only to sit down and look upon the disaster which is clearly our only possibility to survive.

  15. Bob Wallace says:

    Well, jorleh, I can give you an answer to your question.

    We let the ice in Greenland fall to the sea without extracting its potential energy because we don’t have a method to do so.

    As was suggested before, why don’t you spend some time and work out a solution?

    If you’re short of time you might save some by not posting this same question over and over on the web….

  16. Bob Wallace says:

    Mark – I have a general idea. Suppose we do create a carbon tax.

    And suppose we give coal plants the option to either pay the tax or invest that amount of money into renewables. Wouldn’t they almost all choose to shift their business interests to clean energy?

    (I’m assuming that at some point clean energy would be a higher profit enterprise than dirty energy plus a carbon tax. The market for coal produced electricity would drop to a point where they would be better off selling the real estate, salvaging the plant materials and plowing that money into more renewables.)

    And if that wasn’t enough we could add some sort of a dollar matching incentive. I’d rather pay them to work with us than have them fight us.

  17. David Lewis says:

    A thought on computer modelling.

    There never was any question that the models would not succeed in predicting what would happen. I’m starting from a perspective in 1988. They were called “dim crystal balls” then by the best modellers that there were, and the best of the modellers know somewhere in their heart that that’s what they are now. Nevertheless, the theory of climate change was solid enough to act decisively in 1988, and it is far more solid now. Models became prominent in the debate because society generally didn’t understand the limitations of computers, or even what they were. Models played a decisive role in the collapse of Wall Street: Moody’s model didn’t have a way to input the possibility that house prices could ever decline.

    The fact that solid evidence of climate change is upon us far sooner than the models predicted is in line with the history of changes in the atmosphere, i.e. ozone depletion. The computer models for ozone all showed, pre 1987, that ozone depletion was about a generation away. The models predicted there should be no observable effects so far, and that was about what was observed. A lot of observations existed that didn’t fit into what the models predicted, but these were dismissed as anomalies.

    Enter the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica. NASA had actually had a satellite observing the ozone hole for years, but no one had realized it, because the models had convinced everyone that an ozone loss that great could not occur, so although the data was archived, the analysis computer was programmed to reject observations that low as impossible. A ground observer knew the hole was there, but he hesitated to publish and risk his career in case he was mistaken, for years, because of his faith in NASA. Well then he published. NASA dug up the archive and reprogrammed their analysis computer. Suddenly the observations that didn’t fit into the models seemed obvious.

    The models were all missing one tiny detail. No one had considered that there might be ice crystals in the stratosphere. If there is ice in the stratosphere, as over Antarctica, given the ozone depleting substances known to have accumulated in the atmosphere, the ozone disappears. If there is no ice, the ozone stays right where it is. Early explorers of Antarctica had noticed very high clouds seen nowhere else on Earth. These would have tipped off the modellers, but they weren’t exploring Antarctica.

    The point is that any model can only amplify and illustrate what is known. The history of every science is continual discovery of new facts. Therefore, duh, it seems impossible for a model to accurately predict the future given that no experiment has been conducted on so much as one other planet along the lines of the giant experiment with this one that is underway.

    There is a great danger in using models. They lulled everyone to sleep over ozone depletion. We were lucky we didn’t wake up one day and find out the mistake was that a global depletion was staring us in the face instead of the mere continental sized, one half thickness of ozone that occurred over Antarctica. Before the ozone layer evolved, life on Earth was restricted to living some feet below the surface of the sea, as the radiation that ozone protects life from is 100 times stronger than reaches the surface of an Earth protected by ozone. The tiny bit that gets in is what eats up everything exposed to sunlight, like your roof. Most people understand the power of the Sun in terms of how fast you can get sunburn. Imagine a power 100 times as strong as that.

    I’m glad the Arctic melting is happening. At last there is something incontrovertible (except by Revkin at the NY Times) that can be attributed to global warming, and at last, something is scaring the sh*t out of everyone. I was horrified by the prospect of climate change in 1988. Maybe something can be salvaged yet. There’s no harm giving solutions a try.

  18. Bob Wallace says:

    Models are simply a new word for theories.

    Those of us who got our educations earlier were exposed to formal theory construction. One takes the know facts (the data) and combines them into the most plausible story that ties them all together.

    Then the theory is tested against newly acquired data. (Hypotheses are formed based on the theory and tested.) If/when the theory fails to explain/predict that new data the theory is revised/discarded to get a better fitting story.

    Now with computers our theories, our models, can be more complex, we can include more data, and we can much more quickly test new versions.

    With models, just like theories, we have to predict with the data we have. Not with the data we wish we had. Nor with the data that we should have but don’t know enough to wish for….

  19. Jay says:

    So, how much is 2 trillion tons really. The Antarctic has between 24.5 and 30 million cubic kilometers of ice. Do the math and you find that 2 trillion tons is between 0.0073% and 0.0060% of the world’s ice. Sounds more like natural variation to me.

    [JR: Fortunately or unfortunately, what stuff “sounds like” to you ain’t science.]

  20. Adam from Hungary says:

    Thegraph which is trying to show a frightening acceleration of ice melt in Greenland is ridiculous. If you look at this chart you may get the impression that the size of the ice accumulation area is decreasing rapidly. But in fact, the total change is insignificant.

    Here is a short explanation: the total area of the Greenland Ice Sheet is 1.700.000 square kms. The total decrease of the net accumulation area in the last 9 years is only 900 square kilometers. The size of this changing area is 0,05 percent compared to the total area of the ice sheet (0,0005 out 1).