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What’s Beneath Greenland May Not Be so Green

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By: burgundy bug

Aerial view of Greenland
Photo courtesy of
Stig Nygaard on Flickr

Source: Greenland | Stig Nygaard

Greenland is a vast island adorned in an ice sheet that’s three times the size of Texas, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

Although Greenland’s ice sheet has withstood the test of time over the last 2.7 million years, its increase in surface melt over the last few years is rapidly chipping away at the island’s 656,000 square mile blanket of ice.

What lies beneath the ice, and what lies in our future if these trends continue, is a future that is far from green (for us, at least).

A Bit of Context…

Greenland is the largest island on planet Earth that offers a glimpse at arctic culture, wildlife, and a view of the Northern Lights throughout the fall and winter months, according to Visit Greenland.

Greenland had been free of ice for nearly 500 million years before large glaciers began forming in the arctic about 2.7 million years ago, research published in Terra Nova reports.

Shifts in the tectonic plates beneath Greenland elevated the peaks of it’s mountains to colder altitudes and shifted the island upward. There was also a shift in the Earth’s axis that caused the island to move northward, creating conditions that could sustain the ice sheet we now recognize as Greenland.

More About Ice Sheets

The NSIDC defines an ice sheet as a glacial mass that covers more than 20,000 square miles. In total, the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets consist of more than 99 percent of frozen freshwater on our planet.

Ice sheets are formed over thousands of years in areas where snow falls heavily throughout the winter and doesn’t quite melt during the summer months. With time, these masses grow thicker and denser, compressing the layers beneath them.

These glacial masses are also subject to constant motion, slowly falling under their own weight and having chunks of ice taken by ice streams, glaciers, and ice shelves, the NSIDC also explains on their website.

While it’s expected the ice sheets will undergo a melting period throughout the spring and summer months, they remain stable so long as it accumulates the same amount of snow that had melted prior during the following winter.

Greenland When It Was Still Green

As you can imagine, Greenland didn’t get its name for nothing. The island was first discovered by a viking, Erik the Red, over a millennium ago, according to Visit Greenland.

During this time period, vikings settled along the lush, green, western and southern coasts of Greenland. They established their farms on the banks of fjords and grassy slopes of the mountains – thus, warranting its name.

Beneath the ice sheet that runs about one to two miles thick, researchers found sand, silt, and other elements preserved just above the bottom of the ice core, the NSIDC said in an article from a few years ago.

This evidence indicates that an ancient tundra landscape, similar to what can be seen throughout the Arctic, remains intact beneath the ice.

Another research article published in Nature indicates that Greenland has undergone multiple periods of deglacialization and that 1.1 million years is the longest known period the ice sheet has been stable for – which followed 280,000 years of a much more green Greenland.

During a period of deglacialization, researchers hypothesized that any remaining ice would be concentrated in the eastern highlands of Greenland, reducing the ice sheet to less than 10 percent of its current volume.

What Might Happen If Greenland Melts

CNN footage of Greenland’s ice sheet melting

Source: Greenland is Melting | CNN

If the ice sheet melts completely, it would cause sea levels to rise by over 24 feet, according to Nature.

Since the sea satellite began keeping records in 1993, the sea level has risen by an average of 3.11 mm annually, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states online.

Already, these minor changes have had an impact on our environment: we’ve seen an increase in flooding, shoreline erosion, and severe storms in just a short window of time.

Considering that eight of the 10 largest cities globally are established along a coastline and that nearly 40 percent of the US population lives near the coast, as the NOAA states, continuous rises in sea level could be disastrous and life threatening to millions.

The Rapid Rise of Tides and Fall of Greenland (As We Know It)

Now, while it’s improbable that we would wake up one day to find a nude Greenland, recent events have merited a public outcry due to the 12.5 billion tons of ice that melted in just two days last week, as shown in a Tweet published by climate scientist Martin Stendel.

Another record-breaking melt event had occurred between June 11th through the 20th, the NSIDC reported. 275,000 square miles of area melted during the peak of the event on June 12th.

The NSIDC’s interactive chart also gives us a better idea of the extent to which the ice sheet has melted over the last few decades.

So far, no year since 1979 has been more catastrophic to Greenland’s ice sheet as 2012, but we’ve gotten pretty close to some of 2012’s trends this year.

Greenland Surface Melt Extent: 2019 v. 2012

Source: Greenland Surface Melt Extent Interactive Chart | NSIDC

Interestingly, the melting trends this year look very similar to that of 2005.

Greenland Surface Melt Extent: 2019 v. 2005

Source: Greenland Surface Melt Extent Interactive Chart | NSIDC

Facing the Consequences

A 24 foot rise in sea level would reshape the US coast as we know it, turning our bustling metropolitan areas into the modern equivalent of Atlantis, as seen in Climate Central’s interactive maps. Climate Central also has an interactive map that allows you to enter the zip code of a coastal city in the US and evaluate the risks posed towards that area as sea levels continue to rise.

Of course, it’s not just the US that would undergo major transformations, and it’s not just Greenland melting that we’re concerned about, either. National Geographic has also released their predictions of what the Earth might look like if all the ice on our planet melted.

A rise in sea levels will push our populations inward as the ocean consumes our cities and our shorelines. We’ll also have to brace ourselves for the severe storms that’ll become even more frequent as sea levels rise.

In addition to reshaping continents, research has shown the melting in Greenland has made the sea surrounding the island less saline. At this rate, the melting will have a profound impact on the ocean currents that keep Europe warm.

So… Are We Screwed?


Look at it this way: the Earth had survived millenniums without the ice sheets that now blanket Greenland.

However, the cities that line the coasts of the continents we recognize today weren’t established during a pre-glaciarized Greenland.

Continuing at this rate, millions of lives will be disrupted, and we’re not quite sure of how this might impact marine life throughout the planet.

Theoretically, the Earth could recover – but could we?

Before flocking to the midwest in fear of your high rise in the city becoming another relic of the past along the ocean floor, let’s humor the idea of “saving Greenland’s ice sheet.”

Saving Greenland’s Ice Sheet

As mentioned earlier in this article, the melting events only become an issue for our sea level if the ice lost isn’t recovered the following winter.

In February, a team of Penn State researchers said the ice can be saved from melting if we’re able to get a grip of global warming.

Read: What’s the Deal with Climate Change?

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“Greenland was ice-free within the last 1.1 million years even though temperatures then were not much warmer than conditions today.

To explain this, the researchers point to there being more heat beneath the ice sheet in the past than today.”

Novel hypothesis goes underground to predict future of Greenland ice sheet – Penn State

The data collected indicates that molten rock from the Iceland hotspot passed under north central Greenland 35 to 80 million years ago, melting the ice from below so that it was easier to melt from above.

That melted rock left beneath Greenland from this period wants to rise to the surface, and as the ice sheet melts, it shakes, drawing the rock upward.

Greenland has gone through periods in which it’s ice sheet is more or less vulnerable to melting, and the Penn State researchers say it’s hard to tell just how vulnerable the ice sheet is now compared to the past.

One thing’s for sure though, if we don’t take preemptive action to halt global warming – or at least, slow it down – it’s inevitable that Greenland’s ice sheet will melt over the next few centuries.

“If you had a better idea of how much and how fast sea level rises from warming, you could make wiser decisions. This research is a piece of the effort to provide policymakers and planners with the background information that will allow them to make good decisions.”

Richard Alley, Evan Pugh University Professor of Geosciences at Penn State

Read: Step Up on Climate Change by Mel

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burgundy bug


A cynical optimist and mad scientist undercover, burgundy bug is the editor, graphic designer, webmaster, social media manager, and primary photographer for The Burgundy Zine. Entangled in a web of curiosity, burgundy bug’s work embodies a wide variety of topics including: neuroscience, psychology, ecology, biology, cannabis, reviews, fashion, entertainment, and politics. You can learn more about working with burgundy bug by visiting her portfolio website: burgundybug.com

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