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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Explained: Why rain at Greenland summit is a cause for worry

Greenland, which is the world’s largest island located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, has three-quarters of its surface covered with a permanent ice sheet, which is increasingly coming under threat because of climate change.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 22, 2021 12:41:57 pm
geenland climate change Meltwater flows through the Greenland ice sheet, one of the biggest and fastest-melting chunks of ice on Earth, on July 19, 2015. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

On Saturday last week, for the first time on record, the summit of Greenland received rain and not snow, just as temperatures at the spot went above freezing for the third time in less than ten years. The event has sparked fear as scientists are pointing to it as evidence that Greenland is warming rapidly.

As per the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, this was the heaviest rainfall that the ice sheet received since record keeping began in 1950, with Sunday witnessing a rate of ice melting that was seven times more than the daily average that is observed at this time of the year.

Greenland, which is the world’s largest island located between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, has three-quarters of its surface covered with a permanent ice sheet, which is increasingly coming under threat because of climate change.

What happened in Greenland over the weekend?

At the highest point on Greenland’s ice sheet, America’s National Science Foundation maintains a Summit Station, a research facility that observes changes occurring over the island as well as in Arctic weather. On Saturday, the facility observed rain at the normally frigid summit, with the precipitation extending up to Greeland’s southeast coast.

As per a press release, the melting event that day covered 337,000 square miles (Greenland’s ice sheet is 656,000 square miles large), and over the course of three days, the sheet received 7 billion tonnes of rain.

The rain, coupled with warm conditions, caused a major melting event at the summit, adding to concerns of rapid ice melting running off into the ocean in volumes, thus accelerating global sea level rise.

Why is Greenland’s melting a cause for worry?

Greenland, which is two-thirds the size of India, already witnessed one of its most severe melting events of the past decade last month, when it lost 8.5 billion tons of surface mass in one day– the third such extreme event in the past decade. The UN’s “code red” climate report released last week concluded that the burning of fossil fuels led to Greenland melting in the last 20 years.

In 2019, the island lost around 532 billion tonnes of ice to the sea, thanks to hot spring months and a heat wave in July that year, eventually contributing to the global sea level rising permanently by 1.5 millimetres. As per some climate models, the Arctic Ocean could witness ice-free summers by 2050 due to extreme climate interventions. As per a NBC report, if that happens, sea levels could rise by 20 feet, threatening low-lying cities around the world such as Mumbai, New York and Amsterdam.

The rapid melting is also threatening polar bears, which now have to make their way hundreds of kilometres towards Greenland’s interior from the coasts, where they usually find enough food. As per an expert who spoke to CNN, polar bears have been sighted thrice in five years at the Summit Station.

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