Climate researcher: “It is my assessment that we have had the strongest melting since they started measuring the temperature in Greenland in 1873.”

Glaciologist: “Sea level projections will need to be revised upward.”

The headline quote is over a month old, but, according to Google, it hasn’t been reprinted anywhere beyond the story on the official website of Denmark.  That article opened:

New calculations show that the amount of melted inland ice in Greenland is 25-50% higher in 2010 than normally.

The big Arctic story this month has been NOAA’s 2010 Arctic Report Card, which found that, thanks to human-caused global warming, “Arctic of old is gone, experts warn,” as MNSBC put it.   One NOAA scientist explained the importance of the Arctic as the canary in the coal mine: “Whatever is going to happen in the rest of the world happens first, and to the greatest extent, in the Arctic.”

But the rapid Arctic warming is important to our climate in its own right.  It can directly alter our weather.  It threatens to release vast quantities of carbon locked away in the previously frozen tundra (see Science stunner: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting:  NSF issues world a wake-up call: “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming”).

The rapid warming also threatens to accelerate sea level rise.  The Report Card’s section on Greenland, written by an international team of experts, concludes:

Greenland climate in 2010 is marked by record-setting high air temperatures, ice loss by melting, and marine-terminating glacier area loss. Summer seasonal average (June-August) air temperatures around Greenland were 0.6 to 2.4°C above the 1971-2000 baseline and were highest in the west. A combination of a warm and dry 2009-2010 winter and the very warm summer resulted in the highest melt rate since at least 1958 and an area and duration of ice sheet melting that was above any previous year on record since at least 1978. The largest recorded glacier area loss observed in Greenland occurred this summer at Petermann Glacier, where 290 km2 of ice broke away. The rate of area loss in marine-terminating glaciers this year (419 km2) was 3.4 times that of the previous 8 years, when regular observations are available. There is now clear evidence that the ice area loss rate of the past decade (averaging 120 km2/year) is greater than loss rates pre-2000.

It should be no surprise that in the hottest year on record, we see the greatest ice loss in Greenland — see Nature: “Dynamic thinning of Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheet ocean margins is more sensitive, pervasive, enduring and important than previously realized.”

In Greenland, the warmth has meant accelerated flow of melt water from glaciers into the ocean, said Jason Box, a glaciologist at Ohio State University. As a result, he added, “sea level projections will need to be revised upward.

And that brings me back to the Denmark story, which I only learned about because of an eagle-eyed hawk-eyed reader.  I will reprint it in its entirety so it doesn’t disappear into the ether:

Meltdown in Greenland: inland ice drips away at record speed

New calculations show that the amount of melted inland ice in Greenland is 25-50% higher in 2010 than normally
New calculations show that the amount of melting inland ice in Greenland is 25-50% higher in 2010 than normally, reports professional journal Ingeni¸ren (The Engineer). The Danish research scientist Sebastian Mernild of Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US told national daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten that his calculations show that 540 cubic kilometres of inland ice, weighing approx. 500 gigatons, have melted this summer, which is 25-50% more than in a typical year.

Mernild explained that the increased melting is mostly being caused by the rise in summer temperatures in Greenland seen over the last 10-12 years.

A recent study conducted by a US-Dutch research group has however shown that the melting is somewhat lower – “only” around 104 gigatons annually in the period 2002-2008.

Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen at the University of Copenhagen expresses slight scepticism, but does not reject Mernild’s calculations: “Although his figures look dramatic, I cannot deny that the melting has been so strong. It has been a very hot summer”.

Sebastian Mernild also told Jyllands-Posten that 52% of the inland ice has been melting this year. In 1972 it was only 17%.

According to Jyllands-Posten, climate researcher Jason E. Box from Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University, USA, is also saying that the inland ice melting has been particular strong this year:

It is my assessment that we have had the strongest melting since they started measuring the temperature in Greenland in 1873,” he said.

I can’t quite tell if the final quote is from Box or Jyllands-Posten.  I’ll have to track down Box.

And yes, I am quite aware of that recent study suggesting Greenland didn’t lose ice prior to this year quite as fast as some recent analyses suggested (though, contrary to media reporting, it is still losing ice considerably faster than the IPCC ever thought likely).  I have seen criticisms of that study from multiple Greenland experts and am holding off on posting on it until I talk to them.

The bottom line is that the Arctic is on a death spiral to a largely ice free condition in the next decade or two at most (see NSIDC director: “The volume of ice left in the Arctic likely reached the lowest ever level this month” and “Serreze: Arctic is “continuing down in a death spiral. Every bit of evidence we have says the ice is thinning”).  And that would make both accelerate Arctic warming and make it increasingly difficult to preserve a livable climate for our children and countless future generations.

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35 Responses to Climate researcher: “It is my assessment that we have had the strongest melting since they started measuring the temperature in Greenland in 1873.”

  1. JP says:

    “Sebastian Mernild also told Jyllands-Posten that 52% of the inland ice has been melting this year. In 1972 it was only 17%.”

    Suppose that means the ice covered area(?)

  2. BillD says:

    Release of CO2 and methane from melting and decomposing peat that is stored in tundra across Siberia, Canada and Alaska has always seemed like the most dangerous positive feedback.

    Is the melting in Greenland strong enough to be detected as a faster increase in sea level on a short term (annual) basis?

  3. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, you’ll want to read the two latest posts at CEJournal, based on a presentation of a few days ago from Konrad Steffen. He appears to believe the constraints on rapid ice loss postulated a couple of years ago in Pfeffer et al. no longer hold. If that’s true it’s a big, big deal.

  4. Colorado Bob says:

    Winter arrives late in Southcentral Alaska

    Indian summer making skiers antsy

    Read more:

  5. Prokaryotes says:

    Yet another dramatic sign for urgent action. We need to stop releasing more of that carbon into the atmosphere and are forced to start sucking and sequester it back into the earth.

    The question is how fast will the situation deteriorate or even change abrupt. This will be a different planet for our children.

    On the positive side think of all the economic potential – new clean economy – jobs – the 2nd industrial revolution is at our doorsteps.

  6. Robert Brulle says:


    We know how the IPCC didn’t even calculate the loss of glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica in its last estimations of sea level rise. So now what are they looking like? The last I saw was 1-2 meters by 2100.
    Maybe you can get an updated figure?

    Bob Brulle

    [JR: I’ll do a new sea level rise post this week.]

  7. fj2 says:

    Yes, the New York Panel On Climate Change (NPCC) should update the fast melt estimate for sea surface rise by 2080.

    NYC’s 30% reductions in emissions by 2030 is much too small a mitigation effort. It should net-zero by 2020. The World War II effort indicates that this can be done.

    Reference: Lester R. Brown’s Plan B 4.0 for at the Earth Policy Institute.

  8. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Reading much of the available literature, one could be excused for thinking sea level rise will be at a maximum at the end of the century. Not so. Whatever the sea level rise this century, it will keep going up for centuries to come. Error bars expressed as time could be more informative.

    James Hansen’s figure, 5m by 2107, is looking better and better. Can we expect a 5 Meter rise by 2107 +/- five or ten years?

    Paleo data has been averaged over many hundreds of years, necessarily hiding some pretty substantial increases over short terms. Although Joe’s is about the Greenland Ice Sheet, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is the most suscetable to rapid change.

    “When ice melts it tends to melt in a hurry” Bradley Opdyke

  9. Paulm says:

    it will be very handy to get straight what the official figures are, ippc, latest, consensus and dates.

    It still seems impossible to get a 3ft rise by say 2060?

    “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming”…am I missing something ….. I think we are all ready experiencing an abrupt global warming. What is the theoretical maximum rate of warming possible compared to what is happening now?

    Btw we probably saw a huge rise in the precipitation globally along the lines of the melt rate increase!

  10. mike roddy says:

    Certainly sea level rise has been underestimated, but Shakhova’s Shelf study needs to be revisited. It’s key.

  11. Wit's End says:

    Faster and sooner and much worse than predicted. When are climate scientists going to tell people?

  12. David B. Benson says:

    CO2 concentrations are now at around the same level as prevailed in the Miocene, with sea highstands 25–40 meters higher than now. So long as CO2 concentrations remain elevated, the melt will continue to about those levels.

    Determining the rate might be difficult, but Meltwater Pulse 1A at the end of the last glacial ought to provide some guidance.

  13. paulm says:

    This was mentions over at the NYT…

    The Arctic Shifts to a New Climate Pattern in Which ‘Normal’ Becomes Obsolete, October 22, 2010

    The massive Petermann Glacier calved a chunk four times the size of Manhattan in August, the largest single glacier area loss ever recorded in Greenland. But it was not an isolated event. Box says three other glaciers lost more than 10 square miles of area this year, and Greenland’s ice sheet is melting faster than it has since at least 1958.

    “There is no doubt that Greenland ice loss has not just increased above past decades, but it has accelerated,” Box said. “The implication is that sea level rise estimates will again need to be revised upward.”

  14. Was at the NEM ice core drill site on the Greenland ice sheet in late July. When we left it took the LC130 4 tries to get in the air because the snow was so soft. (Takes off and lands on skis)

    It was one heck of a ride.

  15. Tom Yulsman says:

    Steve: I’m not entirely sure whether Konrad Steffen believes what you said, although that’s the implication from what he told me. I really do need to follow up with Koni and ask him to address the question explicitly. I’ll also speak with Pfeffer. This is on the docket for early this week.

    Suffice it to say that migration of ice mass loss up to the northwest of Greenland, where those big, less constrained fjords are located, certainly has him concerned. But the big question, as ever, is how long it might take for ice to drain out of those fjords should the grounding lines move back sufficiently. He said scientists still cannot say.

    Anyway, I’ll have more on this soon.

  16. Dan B says:

    Dan @ 14;

    Are the ski-plane owners nervous that they may not have a viable business if the snow becomes too iffy (too soft to land or take off)?

    I’m concerned about my business, landscape design and ecological restoration. It’s not possible to know what plants will survive and which ecosystems can be restored if one year is a massive freeze and the next a “biblical” drought, let alone flooding, soil erosion, etc.

  17. Steve Bloom says:

    Tom, what really got my attention in your first post was of your quote of Steffen as saying further acceleration and retreat of the outlet glaciers could “drain most of northern Greenland in decades or a century.” This squarely contradicts Pfeffer et al., especially when you go on to say (I assume also quoting Steffen) that this could amount to 2 to 3 meters of sea level rise in the next century. As I mentioned at your blog, Pfeffer et al. proposed a maximum of ~1 meter from Greenland in the next century, and suggested much less was likely. So the question is what does Steffen know that Pfeffer et al. didn’t. If Steffen has something more than intuition as a basis for his views, it’s huge news, although it’s still notable even if it is just intuition. I await your further report with bated breath!

  18. BBHY says:

    “the amount of melting inland ice in Greenland is 25-50% higher in 2010 than normally”

    So, melting of ice in Greenland is now considered normal?

  19. Anonymous says:

    Wit’s End (#11) said: “Faster and sooner and much worse than predicted. When are climate scientists going to tell people?”

    I have a suspicion that many climate scientists individually realize how dire the situation, but don’t say it publicly, for a variety of reasons.

    I would really love to see an interview with a climate scientist from a personal, rather than professional, perspective. As professionals, climate scientists tend to state only what can be defended in peer-reviewed scientific journals, which is a very conservative bar. What expectations do they have, personally, for their lives and the lives of their children? What preparations are they making?

  20. Hot Tropics says:

    Sea Level Graphs

    Good report Joe. Greenland had to be losing large volumes because the arctic sea ice was doing likewise. It was like the canary in the coal mine.

    I would like to see new decadal models that indicate sea level rise from 2010 onwards like the one from the CSIRO in Australia.

    The only thing is the x axis will need to be doubled and the curve, on current ice indications, will come in earlier and possibly be a lot steeper.

  21. Colorado Bob says:

    BP and several other big European companies are funding the midterm election campaigns of Tea Party favourites who deny the existence of global warming or oppose Barack Obama’s energy agenda, the Guardian has learned.

    An analysis of campaign finance by Climate Action Network Europe (Cane) found nearly 80% of campaign donations from a number of major European firms were directed towards senators who blocked action on climate change. These included incumbents who have been embraced by the Tea Party such as Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, and the notorious climate change denier James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma.

  22. _Flin_ says:

    Interesting. So Vermeer/Rahmstorf 2009 and their semi-empirical sea-level/global temperature approach might might have more merits than some have thought.

  23. fj2 says:

    It is better to spend the money on mitigating climate change.

    A Far Away Country Of Which We Know Nothing
    Paul Krugman, NY Times

  24. Robert says:

    Colorado Bob – it is a real inditement of “democracy” when it can be easily shown that most funding comes from corporations. Most of the Tea Party funding appears to come from Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, which are fronts for corporate donations.

  25. darth says:

    Joe you are going to ‘track down’ and actually talk to researchers? What kind of blogger are you? :)

  26. Joan Savage says:

    NOAA’s recent Arctic Report Card for 2010 made an important comment about mid-latitude weather effects related to atmospheric warming over the Arctic. (This is apart from concerns about sea level rise.)

    “….recent data analysis and modeling suggest a link between loss of sea ice and a shift to an increased impact from the Arctic on mid-latitude climate (Francis et al. 2009; Honda et al. 2009). Models suggest that loss of sea ice in fall favors higher geopotential heights over the Arctic. With future loss of sea ice, such conditions as winter 2009-2010 could happen more often. Thus we have a potential climate change paradox. Rather than a general warming everywhere, the loss of sea ice and a warmer Arctic can increase the impact of the Arctic on lower latitudes, bringing colder weather to southern locations.”

    So, we could have melting glaciers in Greenland and frosts in Florida at the same time.

  27. Steve Bloom says:

    “So, we could have melting glaciers in Greenland and frosts in Florida at the same time.”

    But as with a possible slow-down in the rate of increase of northeast Atlantic temperatures if the Gulf Stream slows due to increasing fresh water inputs into the north Atlantic as a consequence of melting ice, any such effect will be temporary in addition to being restricted to the cold season. Winter warming too is an inevitable part of our future.

  28. Michael says:

    The recent 500 mb height pattern appears to be similar to that from last winter, as indicated in the report:

    Note the anomalously low heights pushed southwards, which, among other things, gave Britain an unusually early snowfall.

  29. Steve Bloom says:

    MSNBC now quotes Jason Box of Ohio State as saying that sea level rise estimates will have to go up. As with Steffen, there’s still no indication of what exactly that’s based on.

  30. Whatever happens, it is likely to be worse than the scientists project (in my opinion).

    As is noted above, scientists and the IPCC as a particular example, have been underestimating the impacts of climate change for the last 20 years. This is understandable – they are inherently conservative and generally won’t make statements that they cannot support with hard data.

    Joe has the right attitude, trumpet the case! Every time there is a paper issued that increases the projections, we have to increase the pressure for change.

    Keep up the good work Joe.

  31. Prokaryotes says:

    Ricki – “Whatever happens, it is likely to be worse than the scientists project (in my opinion).”

    The negative “stress”, psychological and physiological wise – affects on humans are not yet assessed.

  32. John McCormick says:

    I’m sitting in a cafe on Madira Beach west of St Petersburg. Lots of property about 2 to 3 feet above high tide. What will the property owners think when they hear SLR estimate will rise upward…very upward.

    FL has the highest foreclosure rate in the US and property values have halved in most of FL.

    Coastal Fl has no future. Property owners will have to adapt by trying to sell and getting inland. I don’t say this lightly. Many peoples lives are going to be crushed by AGW and SLR.

    John McCormick

  33. Robert says:

    Dr. Romm,

    there’s a post on the way at Skeptical Science about the Wu et al. 2010 study that you were referring to that adjusted the Greenland values downward. I have some criticisms of that study which I feel are somewhat warranted but I do think it is a good try. A couple of things that you should be aware of is a newer paper using laser altimetry (very accurate) that tries 4 different techniques, assesses their accuracy, and concludes that Greenland is losing 237 GT per year. This study is Sorensen et al. (2010) and it is in the cryosphere discussions currently. Another thing I would like to point out to you is the Thomas et al (2008) study which assesses radar altimetry surveys in greenland and concludes they underestimate ice losses. Wu et al (2010) point out that there study agrees well with those radar altimetry studies…