Climate at a Glance: Greenland Ice Melt

Melting iceberg floating in Greenland fjord. Licensed from 123rf.com

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Key Takeaways:

  • Climate activists, including government bureaucrats, claim the Greenland ice sheet is melting six times faster than it was 30 years ago. But 30 years ago, the Greenland ice sheet was barely melting at all. Six times almost no ice loss is hardly an example of a climate change crisis.
  • When recent ice loss is compared to the full Greenland ice sheet, the loss is so small that it is almost undetectable.

Short Summary:

Sea-level measurements contradict claims that the loss of ice in the Greenland ice sheet threatens to cause global coastal flooding. NASA satellite images, which include readings dating back to 1993, show sea levels rising at a pace of merely 1.2 inches per decade, which is not significantly different than the typical rate of sea-level rise recorded since the mid-1800s.1

Over the past couple of decades, claims of ice melt in Greenland have been used to bolster fears of runaway sea-level rise. For example, NASA scientists said the following about the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets:

“The two regions have lost 6.4 trillion tons of ice in three decades; unabated, this rate of melting could cause flooding
that affects hundreds of millions of people by 2100.”2,3


Although several trillion tons of ice sounds like massive ice loss, it amounts to less than 1 percent of Greenland’s total ice mass. As shown in Figure 1, the total ice loss each year is nearly undetectable, coming in at just 0.005 percent of the Greenland ice sheet.

Similarly, on July 30, 2021, media outlets touted scary headlines such as, “Greenland: Enough Ice Melted on Single Day to Cover Florida in Two Inches of Water.”5 While that might sound troubling, data show this amount of ice melt is not unheard of in Greenland, where temperatures are known to rise above freezing on particularly sunny days, melting a large amount of surface ice in a short span. It’s an event that has happened many times before, including as recently as 2012.6

It is also important to note that pooled meltwater typically refreezes, resulting in virtually no net loss of ice in Greenland’s ice sheet. Greenland experienced some melt events in the summer of 2021, driven by abnormally sunny weather, but the melt events were quickly followed by refreezing and a return to normal ice levels within a few days.

Of course, you need not take our word for it. The National Snow and Ice Data

Center wrote of the recent events: “The Greenland Ice Sheet had two extensive melt events in the second half of July. The second melt event had the sixth-largest melt area and fourth-highest runoff in the satellite record, which began in 1978. However, snow cover from earlier snowfall in early summer blunted the potential impact of the melting by limiting the exposure of bare ice and reducing runoff. The two events resulted in the 2021 season flipping from a net gain of ice to near-average net change.”7

A full-context examination of the data shows only a tiny fraction of Greenland’s ice sheet is melting, and with very little impact—the exact opposite of what many climate activists claim.

Figure 1. The Media vs. Reality

Figure 1. A comparison of presentations of satellite data capturing Greenland’s ice mass loss. The image on the right shows changes in Greenland’s ice mass relative to Greenland’s total ice mass. Sources: The data plotted in these graphs are from the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-Comparison Exercise, a joint exercise by NASA and the European Space Agency.4 Graphs originally by Willis Eschenbach. Adapted and annotated by Anthony Watts.

References:

  1. NASA satellite instruments, with readings dating back to 1993, show global sea levels
    rising at a pace of merely 1.2 inches per decade. See “Sea Level Rise,” Climate at a
    Glance, accessed September 6, 2021, https://climateataglance.com/climate-at-a-glancesea-
    level-rise
  2. See NASA, “Greenland, Antarctica Melting Six Times Faster Than in the 1990s,” press
    release, nasa.gov, last updated March 18, 2020, https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/
    greenland-antarctica-melting-six-times-faster-than-in-the-1990s
  3. Brandon Specktor, “Ice loss in Antarctica and Greenland Increased Sixfold in the Last
    30 Years,” LiveScience, March 13, 2020, https://www.livescience.com/antarcticagreenland-
    ice-shelf-loss.html
  4. Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-Comparison Exercise, “About IMBIE,” NASA and the
    European Space Agency, imbie.org, accessed September 5, 2021, http://imbie.org/
    about-the-project
  5. Oliver Milman, “Greenland: Enough Ice Melted on Single Day to Cover Florida in Two
    Inches of Water,” The Guardian (U.K.), July 30, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/
    environment/2021/jul/30/greenland-ice-sheet-florida-water-climate-crisis
  6. Mark Hobson, “Thin Clouds Drove Greenland’s Record-Breaking 2012 Ice Melt,”
    University of Wisconsin at Madison, April 3, 2013, https://news.wisc.edu/thin-cloudsdrove-
    greenlands-record-breaking-2012-ice-melt
  7. National Snow and Ice Data Center, “Large Melt Events Change the Story of
    2021, Published August 11, 2021,” August 11, 2021, http://nsidc.org/greenlandtoday/
    2021/08/large-melt-event-changes-the-story-of-2021

Climate At A Glance is a Project of The Heartland Institute

Email: think@heartland.org