NASA: Earth Is Losing Half A Trillion Tons Of Ice A Year

Global Ice Loss from 2003-2010 Could “Cover the Entire United States in One and Half Feet of Water”

Changes in ice thickness (in centimeters per year) during 2003-2010 as measured by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, averaged over each of the world’s ice caps and glacier systems outside of Greenland and Antarctica. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Colorado. [See figure of Greenland and Antarctica ice loss below.]

This piece was reposted from the NASA website

In the first comprehensive satellite study of its kind, a University of Colorado at Boulder-led team used NASA data to calculate how much Earth’s melting land ice is adding to global sea level rise.

Using satellite measurements from the NASA/German Aerospace Center Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), the researchers measured ice loss in all of Earth’s land ice between 2003 and 2010, with particular emphasis on glaciers and ice caps outside of Greenland and Antarctica.

The total global ice mass lost from Greenland, Antarctica and Earth’s glaciers and ice caps during the study period was about 4.3 trillion tons (1,000 cubic miles), adding about 0.5 inches (12 millimeters) to global sea level. That’s enough ice to cover the United States 1.5 feet (0.5 meters) deep.

“Earth is losing a huge amount of ice to the ocean annually, and these new results will help us answer important questions in terms of both sea rise and how the planet’s cold regions are responding to global change,” said University of Colorado Boulder physics professor John Wahr, who helped lead the study. “The strength of GRACE is it sees all the mass in the system, even though its resolution is not high enough to allow us to determine separate contributions from each individual glacier.”

About a quarter of the average annual ice loss came from glaciers and ice caps outside of Greenland and Antarctica (roughly 148 billion tons, or 39 cubic miles). Ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica and their peripheral ice caps and glaciers averaged 385 billion tons (100 cubic miles) a year. Results of the study will be published online Feb. 8 in the journal Nature.

Traditional estimates of Earth’s ice caps and glaciers have been made using ground measurements from relatively few glaciers to infer what all the world’s unmonitored glaciers were doing. Only a few hundred of the roughly 200,000 glaciers worldwide have been monitored for longer than a decade.

One unexpected study result from GRACE was that the estimated ice loss from high Asian mountain ranges like the Himalaya, the Pamir and the Tien Shan was only about 4 billion tons of ice annually. Some previous ground-based estimates of ice loss in these high Asian mountains have ranged up to 50 billion tons annually.

“The GRACE results in this region really were a surprise,” said Wahr, who is also a fellow at the University of Colorado-headquartered Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. “One possible explanation is that previous estimates were based on measurements taken primarily from some of the lower, more accessible glaciers in Asia and extrapolated to infer the behavior of higher glaciers. But unlike the lower glaciers, most of the high glaciers are located in very cold environments and require greater amounts of atmospheric warming before local temperatures rise enough to cause significant melting. This makes it difficult to use low-elevation, ground-based measurements to estimate results from the entire system.”

“This study finds that the world’s small glaciers and ice caps in places like Alaska, South America and the Himalayas contribute about 0.02 inches per year to sea level rise,” said Tom Wagner, cryosphere program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “While this is lower than previous estimates, it confirms that ice is being lost from around the globe, with just a few areas in precarious balance. The results sharpen our view of land-ice melting, which poses the biggest, most threatening factor in future sea level rise.”

The twin GRACE satellites track changes in Earth’s gravity field by noting minute changes in gravitational pull caused by regional variations in Earth’s mass, which for periods of months to years is typically because of movements of water on Earth’s surface. It does this by measuring changes in the distance between its two identical spacecraft to one-hundredth the width of a human hair.

— a NASA repost

Joe Romm:  As I noted earlier, I checked with JPL’s Eric Rignot, who called the study “a solid confirmation” of his 2011 paper:  “JPL bombshell: Polar ice sheet mass loss is speeding up, on pace for 1 foot sea level rise by 2050.”

30 Responses to NASA: Earth Is Losing Half A Trillion Tons Of Ice A Year

  1. prokaryotes says:

    So why is the lamestream media not reporting adequately about these profound findings?

  2. Tom King says:

    So the Three Gorges Dam holds back 40 billion tons (39.3 cubic km) and it causes earthquakes. But relocating 500 billion tons a year won’t cause earthquakes?

  3. Leif says:

    Wouldn’t removal of high level ice mass to sea level have a tendency to speed up the earth’s rotation speed, similar to an ice skater pulling in their arms? I would think that effect would be measurable as well with today’s clock accuracy. I recall reading that last year’s Japanese earthquake shifted enough mass to have a measurable effect in rotation speed.

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Yes it does affect the speed and tilt of the earth axis. And the mass distribution causes the earth crust to rebound.

    Read a summary here

    Click on download podcast to listen to a short interview with Bill McGuire where he explains this in more detail (briefly).

  5. Tim says:

    Note that the image shown here specifically excludes Green land and Antarctica, as indicated in the caption. The NASA web site has an image for them.

  6. Leif says:

    Of course, I forgot about that counter effect. Thank you Pro.

  7. Sasparilla says:

    Joe please consider adding this to the bottom of the article if you would.

    Here’s the page with the Greenland and Antartica losses:

  8. M Tucker says:

    “”…ice is being lost from around the globe…land-ice melting, which poses the biggest, most threatening factor in future sea level rise.”” and I would add it is also one of the most threatening factors for fresh water availability. And this is happening with less than one degree of average warming.

    We have no solution for this. The ice is going because our best efforts will not stop the warming. “…policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C…” (From Joe’s post on 2/20 “If We Want To Avoid Catastrophic Global Warming”). BUT the policymakers do not have an agreement. No binding policy exists. All we have are wishes so I wonder what the melt will be with 3 degrees of average global warming? We will shoot past 2 degrees without a global agreement to limit GHG emissions.

  9. prokaryotes says:

    In the future human civilization will be hit hard by catastrophic events, which are part of a cataclysmic chain reaction.

    The weather today already casts doom for many farms and this will just get more pronounced.

    In the coming years and decades ahead we will have to learn to live with many things lost. Most of the lost things are considered good things, which define current life style commodities.

    We approach a planetary situation when only a billion of us can be feed, which probably is still a optimistic assessing, considering the turmoil which will rule when confronted with empty supermarket shelves.

    The only hope we can have is that we unite to suck as fast as possible the poison back out of the atmosphere and store it in the earth, with technologies like biochar. At this point it appears to be wishful thinking.

  10. ozajh says:

    And note that the separate image for Greenland and Antarctica uses a different (and much higher) scale.

  11. Solar Jim says:

    There seems to be an increase in tectonic activity in the earth’s crust, as reported in recent news accounts. Perhaps an updated post on earthquakes and volcanoes might confirm this apparent trend.

    Speculating wildly, if a super volcano eventually goes off, due to displacement of trillions of tons of melted ice, we won’t have to worry about changing light bulbs. We will have turned into different types of bean counters, and petro-exporters can hoard those trillions of dollars since they will be rather worthless.

    Note that this melting is an accelerating trend, and there are some seven million cubic miles available for the process to proceed.

    We have been “playing with fire” (precipitating fossil carbonic acid gas) for far too long.

  12. Lucian says:

    This makes me very afraid of whats happening to our world…are We, as a species coming to out inevitable ending? who is listening and what if anything can be done….

  13. M Tucker says:

    Pro – I have a lot of respect for your opinions and I do believe biochar could store carbon but please help me understand how it could remove the CO2 now in the atmosphere. We need some kind of technology that can do that, take carbon from the atmosphere and somehow store it back in Mother Earth, but I do not know of an economical way to do that. I sure hope you young folks find a way to solve that problem.

  14. prokaryotes says:

    One way is to introduce sink management and extend carbon sinks and facilitate those for pyrolysed charcoal.

    This will be shown to have a net effect on nation GDP, probably in relation to local and global sink potentials.

    Because this alters the environment in a good way (health benefits for instance) and it is the best safeguard for crop cultivation. Biochar is the single best tool when combating drought effects, because the biochar-soil holds more water.

    This biochar could be also then used to improve soils, and especially when introduced on permafrost soils.

    Because it binds the nitrous oxide, which forms in thawing permafrost, which is a major factor. This could be very important. The problem is scaling, but you can be creative when using animal herds and planes for distribution.

    First you drop the charcoal on permafrost and then in coming month you have animal herds run over the area. Also you could start planting billions and billions of trees to channel the emerging methane bomb.

  15. prokaryotes says:

    Another way is to start with landfill management for biochar production, to make biochar out of all the things we like to trash ( or chicken manure, basically any organic bio waste).

    Peter Hirst a biochar pioneer things that small scale biochar production will bring the commercial breakthrough.

    Howto Biochar with Peter Hirst

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    SJ –
    Speculating wildly, ……. Iceland, … that’s a cork that will surely pop-off, if we melt all it’s ice. GPS has shown a huge rise in Greenland , more flux into the system near Iceland.

  17. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    One thousand indivduals could be enough to provide a base stock of humans to repopulate the planet.

    We might be about to test that theory

  18. Barry Saxifrage says:

    533 Gt ice lost in one year
    33 Gt CO2 emissions in one year
    16 tonnes of ice per tCO2

    Obviously the ice is being melted by the past emissions mostly, but I find it a good way to put the ice melt huge numbers in context.

  19. ddotto says:

    That is a most interesting speculation. Could it be true? That our days become shorter, our computer schedules and digital and printed calendars become faulty and need revision to accommodate accelerated and shorter days as a result of fossil fuel consumption? This is amazing. Grotesque, but amazing!

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Because it doesn’t suit their owners’ economic interest to do so.

  21. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Prokaryotes, in truth it has been too late for ten years, at least, and if you wish to be morbid, considering the human psyche and its more tormented manifestations, it has been inevitable that one day, somehow, we would exterminate ourselves. The ecological disasters are grim enough, but the response to disaster by the more crooked timbers amongst us is what I truly fear. We progressed technologically too far while actually regressing morally and spiritually. It’s a deadly conjunction.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘We must not allow a mineshaft gap!’

  23. prokaryotes says:

    True but this is a stark generalization. Not everybody has progressed as you describe. And as i understand, the next 4-10 years are crucial.

  24. prokaryotes says:

    The actual differences are miniscule, but considerable

    Initial results out of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology show that the 8.9-magnitude earthquake that rattled Japan Friday shifted the earth’s rotation axis by about 25 centimetres.

    INGV’s report, which came hours after the devastating incident, is equivalent to “very, very tiny” changes that won’t be seen for centuries, though, Canadian geologists say.

    Only after centuries would a second be lost as each day is shortened by a millionth of a second, according to University of Toronto geology professor Andrew Miall.

    “Ten inches sounds like quite a lot when you hold a ruler in front of you. But if you think of it in terms of the earth as a whole, it’s absolutely tiny; it’s minute,” he said.

    “It’s going to make minute changes to the length of a day. It could make very, very tiny changes to the tilt of the earth, which affects the seasons, but these effects are so small, it’d take very precise satellite navigation to pick it up.”

    Also this is probably not the last of it’s kind. The last time we had a comparable situation seismic activity rose 50 fold. But this time it’s much faster, due to the unprecedented speed of emissions. It boils down to mass destabilization – mayhem.

  25. Tom King says:

    Climate Defenders have had difficulty in presenting their case partly because the results appear to be gradual in the public’s mind. What is needed is to emphasis the unexpected and chaotic part of the story. IE – massive storms, torrential floods, and yes, earthquakes.

    I realize that earthquakes are not yet acceptable discussion points for climate scientists, but they would certainly elicit strong emotional responses from the public.

    I have felt for some time that a third front needs to open up. We need to move beyond this battle between scientists and reactionaries. Instead, there needs to be Climate Defense reactionaries that act to relieve the pressure on scientists by staking out slightly more aggressive positions. This would open up a central position that scientists could occupy and arbitrate from.

  26. Leif says:

    Rabid. How many species and parts of species are needed to stitch the fabric of Earth’s Life Support Systems must survive to insure those thousand top predators survive? Will the survivors have a foundation of knowledge and wisdom to do any better than we have?

  27. Ted says:

    Melting ice from northern and southern lattitudes moving toward the equator, with a greater distance traveled, would slow down the rate of the earths motion to the East?

  28. CoastalMike says:

    Here’s a stupid question:
    back of the envelope, this melt is absorbing about 1.3 x 10^21 joules/year. That, of course, doesn’t include the net melting of sea ice. Is this significant in terms of slowing the pace of “global warming”? or is it negligible compared to, say, albedo effect and “global heat capacity”? Will warming accelerate when we start to run out of ice?

  29. Mond from Oz says:

    There is a marked difference between the illustration to this post and the one in the abstract of the Jacob et al original in Nature Feb 2012. Jacob 2012 is also the subject of comment and discussion in skepticalscience of 25/2. Your illustration shows the Greenland melt displaced to the west, and shows no melt at all in Antarctica.