As Parts of Three Continents Bake, Greenland Sees Sudden Spike in Surface Melting

By Tom Yulsman | July 4, 2015 2:14 pm
surface melting

Greenland as seen by NASA’s Aqua satellite on June 29, 2015. (Source: NASA Worldview)

As brutal heat grips parts of Europe, Asia, North America and South America, another place is also experiencing a spike in temperatures — one that you may not have heard about.

It’s happening in Greenland, and high temperatures there over the past two weeks have caused a sudden jump in melting at the surface of the vast ice sheet (seen in that great expanse of white in the satellite image above).

For more details about the heat elsewhere, including record-setting 100+ temperatures in places like the Netherlands, see Jeff Masters’ recent post at Weather Underground.

In this preliminary post I’ll focus on Greenland.

I say preliminary, because a report on the situation is probably coming from the National Snow and Ice Data Center a bit later in July. By then, it is entirely possible that conditions will have shifted. In fact, “it’s not that unusual to see a spike,” Ted Scambos of the NSIDC told me in an email. So we’ll see.

For now, though, check out what’s happening:

surface melting

In the graph above, the red line traces a sudden increase in the extent of surface melting in Greenland. (Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center)

See that spike in the red line? That shows the extent of surface melting — which currently is above 40 percent of the ice sheet’s surface. That’s about twice as much as the long-term average for this time of year, as depicted by the dotted blue line.

surface melting

Where the ice sheet meets the rocky coast: Blue melt ponds as well as darkening of ice and snow are seen in this satellite image showing part of the west coast of Greenland. It was acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on June 29, 2015. (Source: NASA Worldview)

Some surface melting is completely normal during the summer in Greenland. And actually, it got off to a slower than average start this year, thanks to a cold and snowy spring. But then, beginning in mid-June, the situation reversed.

Melting on the surface of the ice sheet is caused by warm temperatures, and the 24 hours of daylight above the Arctic Circle, as well as darkening of the snow and ice, which causes less sunlight to be reflected away. Meltwater helps to darken the surface, as does particulates from wildfire smoke that has drifted over from elsewhere.

More about this “albedo” effect in a moment. But first, here’s what temperatures have looked like:

surface melting

An animation showing how temperatures departed from the long-term average between June 17 and 30, 2015.

In this animation, first keep your eyes on Greenland. Note the persistent blob of warm colors indicating anomalous warmth.

The animation also shows hot temperatures forming over Portugal and Spain, spreading across much of western Europe and into parts of Central Europe. You can also see the persistent heat over Western North America that has fueled wildfires from California to Alaska and across a large swath of Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada.

What’s up with that heat?

surface melting

This is a map showing how geopotential height varied from the long-term average during the same period — June 17 through July 2. For a good explanation of geopotential height, go here.

For our purposes, it’s enough to know that where geopotential height anomalies are high, as indicated by warm colors, atmospheric pressure tends to be high, and temperatures tend to be warmer than average. Where the anomalies are lower than average, as shown with blues, pinks and purples, pressure and temperature tend to be relatively low as well.

Now, check out the pattern: High pressure parked over Alaska, western North America, Western Europe — and Greenland.

This pattern is connected to a wavy jet stream that has become stuck. For a post last week on Canada’s raging wildfires, I created this graphic to illustrate the phenomenon. And here’s what I said about it:

study published earlier this month found new evidence that rapid warming of the Arctic due to human activities is causing the Northern Hemisphere jet stream to be wavier in a way that promotes extreme weather like the unusual heat now gripping much of western North America. (Not to mention the extreme cold that afflicted the U.S. Midwest and East Cost this past winter.) The research also finds that these contortions are occurring more frequently.

I also cautioned that this is an area of ongoing research, and there is disagreement among experts about whether Arctic warming really is connected to jet stream waviness.

Whatever the cause, I’m curious to know whether any smoke from the wildfires in Alaska and Canada have drifted over to Greenland and caused dark particulates to settle on the snow and ice. The resulting darkening would decrease the surface albedo, resulting in less sunlight being reflected and therefore more melting.

surface melting

Source: Polar Portal

I’ve had a good look at satellite images, and I don’t see any obvious signs of smoke drifting over to Greenland. But I’m a journalist, not a remote sensing expert, so it is entirely possible that I’m missing something. Perhaps the upcoming report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center will say something about this.

For now, I’ll finish with the map at right showing how the surface albedo of the Greenland Ice Sheet currently varies from the long-term average. Wherever you see red, the albedo is low. When you click on the thumbnail you’ll go to the Polar Portal site, where you’ll find lots of information about what’s happening in Greenland, including a larger version of this map.

As the Polar Portal explanation puts it:

Red areas indicate where melting and possibly black carbon from wildfire accumulating on the surface darkens the ice. Blue areas indicate where fresh snow or more snow than normal has accumulated. Albedo thus provides a convenient indicator of the competing effects of ice mass gain from snowfall and ice mass loss from melting. Melting ice tends to be darker (has a lower albedo) because melt causes ice crystals to round and if the melting point is reached, liquid water also lowers the snow and ice reflectivity. Any change in reflectivity thereby tends to amplify subsequent changes through a positive feedback loop. Thus, albedo is a very sensitive ice climate indicator.

I’ll post on this subject again when the NSIDC comes out with its report. So please check back.

In the meantime, for readers in the United States, I hope your holiday weekend is awesome (and not too hot!).

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  • m maakie

    TYVM Tom Yulsman!

    • Tom Yulsman

      You are welcome!

  • http://brightblueball.net/ JimCummings

    Comparison to long-term is always relevant but in this case it would be good to see how this spike compares to other recent ones, or to trend in past, say 3 years, when it’s become more commented upon. Is this year extreme by recent standards, or in line with recent up-ticks?

    • Rachel8745

      If you are in need for extra income on the side in the range of 50 bucks to 300 bucks on daily basis for doing an online job from your home for few h a day then this may interest you…

    • Tom Yulsman

      Jim: I’ll have an update around July 10, when the National Snow and Ice Data Center will likely be releasing a report. I’m sure they’ll cover how this spike compares to others in recent years. But as Ted Scambos of the NSIDC says in the story (I quoted him), a spike is not all that unusual. We’ll have to see how persistent the melting turns out to be, and whether there are other spikes. One thing to keep in mind is that the start of the melt season was delayed this year because of lingering cold and extra snow. So it will be interesting to see what the net surface mass balance turns out to be for the year.

  • Dan Imler

    Look on the bright (hot) side. This frees up some more habitable land which we could use for hotels or housing to relieve the population pressures. And, when people relocate there, maybe we could sell them something in the name of economic growth. (sic)

  • OWilson

    There’s already been trouble between interfering envirofascists and the local Greenlanders who prefer fertile valleys to ice clogged glaciers. They want more arable land. :)

    • Tom Yulsman

      I’ve heard Greenland’s Prime Minister say that climate change poses great risks to her country but also offers opportunities as well. She is a smart realist, and unlike many politicians here in the U.S., she is not blinded by ideology.

      • OWilson

        Sounds like a balanced view.

        Wish there were more like her. Sigh!

        • Mike Richardson

          We can only hope. 😉

    • Mike Richardson

      Since glaciers tend to scour away topsoil, it’s probably questionable just how much arable land is underneath the ice. And if rapid melting results in unpredictable flooding, that could also put a wrinkle in development. Not an “envirofascist” point of view, but just something that needs to be considered when living on a minicontinent covered by a huge block of melting ice. But nothing wrong in looking on the bright side, right? 😉

      • OWilson

        I’m getting to like this, ‘all things need to be considered’ stuff.

        Sounds downright intelligent, not to mention scientific.

        I think we’re making progress! :)

  • DoRightThing

    Greenland’s melt has increased since the article was written, and now about 50%.
    https://sites.google.com/site/arcticseaicegraphs/

    Arctic sea ice is going away.
    http://youtu.be/nuKVk1gMJDg

  • OWilson

    As summer turns the heat up, the usual alarmist headlines make the news. “baking”, “on fire”, then it’s on to the next extreme on the bell curve. It’s almost like a guerilla movement, hit then run :)

    In the interests of balance, and information, we need to post the odd update. Stuff like “out of control wildfires” that are now contained.

    Here’s an update on that much maligned Colorado River, and its reservoirs, and the Western Drought:

    RAIN-STARVED COLORADO AWASH IN WATER.

    by Lora Abcarian | July 06, 2015
    “…….. According to Wolfe, the National Weather Service has deemed the month of May the wettest month, setting a national record “which is pretty impressive.” He added that this is the first turnaround of significance to have occurred during more than a decade of drought.

    “Reservoirs are full or nearly full,” he commented. “We’ve got good reservoir storage.”

    Coloradans saw an extended winter season in 2015 with cooler-than-normal temperatures moving into May. Monsoonal flows, typically seen during the summer months, took hold early and resulted in heavier-than-normal springtime rains. News accounts were rife with stories about flooding or potential for flooding”

    • DoRightThing

      You just ate a sandwich, therefore there is no world hunger.

      • OWilson

        You have weird logic.

        It actually proves that we re not all starving, is all :)

    • Josh

      There can be warming in one location on the globe and cooling in the other. That’s why its called Climate Change. There are feedback loops that can develop over time without warning, causing unpredictable events. Colorado is only one example. In order to have a thorough representation, the whole globe needs to be accounted for.

      • OWilson

        The AGWers claim to have science on their side, but their whole house of cards is built on disingenuous definitions.

        The very term itself, “climate change” has been expropriated, like a lot of good words, by the left to mean something entirely different.

        Add “denier”, as in “climate change denier” and its even more nebulous and open to a great deal of interpretation.

        But they know it is harder to hit a moving target :)

        It is of course the “newspeak” Orwell warned us against.

        Words like investment,. discriminating, gay, even progressive. Transparency (when demanded by Hillary), even Is (when used by Bill)

        In other words, Right is wrong, and Left is right.

        Hey, it works for the low info voter!

    • Tom Yulsman

      I’m sorry Mr. Wilson, but you are incorrect. I reported that for the lower 48 states, May was the wettest of 1,452 months on record: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/imageo/2015/06/08/may-wettest-of-1452-months-on-record/#.VZ3W-hNViko

      As for you statement about the Colorado River, you cherry pick facts to suit your ideology. The truth is that we did have a very wet May, and in some places, reservoirs have filled. But Lake Mead is at its lowest level since it filled: http://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/g4000/hourly/mead-elv.html And it will take a lot more moisture – including more than one epic year of snowfall in the upper basin — to turn around a drought that has been going on for more than 10 years.

      As for my use of the word “bake” in the headline, if you don’t think that’s appropriate for what has happened in Europe and elsewhere this past week, then I guess you really should find a blog more to your liking. The word was appropriate. And no, it does not indicate a lack of balance. When it’s unusually wet, I report it, when it’s unusually dry, I write about it too. Ditto when it’s “baking” and when it is much colder than usual. But the truth is that overall, the world is warming, certain kinds of extreme weather are becoming more likely, and our emissions of greenhouse gases are largely to blame. That is what’s called “mainstream science.” It may ultimately turn out to be wrong (and if it does, I’ll report it), but I would not bet on it.

      • OWilson

        I am glad you make it clear that you report on extremes.

        There have always been extremes, and always will be, so you’ll never run out of “new” record events, especially with new technology coming on line every day, new ways of measuring and reporting phenomena.

        Don’t worry, your blog is safe! :)

        There’s a lot of anthropocentric hubris in “record warm temperatures in the Arctic” or “record tropical storms” in the oceans, or “record fires in the West”.
        Kinda like “record” UFO sighting in the fifties, when every family acquired a Kodak, or a “record” increase violence now that everybody carries an Iphone camera to a altercation.
        Calls of catastrophic climate change in the next couple years, and it just happens to be in your specific lifetime, even in your adulthood, out of all the billions of years of earth history.
        Now that’s one hell of a coincidence. But it is actually explained scientifically in the books I’ve recommended here, The Drunkard’s Walk, The Signal and The Noise, and quite a few more.
        This too will pass.
        Peace!

        • Mike Richardson

          “Human perceptions can be biased, especially when political worldviews are involved.” Honestly, this doesn’t seem slightly ironic to you? I don’t go with the most catastrophic predictions, but I would think pretending there’s no problem might be indicative of just a little bias to the other extreme. I’m sure there’s some middle ground where we can at least agree humanity is having more than a negligible impact on a finite biosphere. Cheers, Wilson. :)

          • OWilson

            I’m not “pretending there’s no problem”.

            I’m STATING there is no problem. The latest satellite data shows no statistically significant warming over the last 36 years. The UN defines climate as 30 years.

            Ancient ice cores, ancient tree rings, ancient tidal gauges tend to have a slightly higher margin of error than satellites, especially when we are talking about temperature “records” set by mere hundredths of a degree, over thousands of years.

            That’s like trusting an old waterclock clock for the time and ignoring your quartz wristwatch. :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Would you mind providing the links, or at least sources for which satellite data is being referenced? Just so the rest of us could see if it’s “statistically significant,” or if that’s your own assessment. But as for the sundial analogy, that’s a good one. Better than some you’ve made lately. Good job, Wilson. 😉

          • OWilson

            My links to satellite data from NOAA and NSIDC have been provided to you many times. You don’t accept them because they run counter to your belief system.

            So how about a first! Posting your own links to the satellite data? :)

            (Complete and up to date, and from an official source, with none of your “predictions” though!)

          • Mike Richardson

            So, the graphs that show a slight, but easily discernible trend towards less sea ice over time in the summer, as well as a more recent trend towards a reduced maximum in winter. Nothing catastrophic, and I myself am skeptical about ice free summers anytime soon at the present rate, though an open Northwest passage could happen more frequently. I don’t recall making any predictions one way or the other, though, and I don’t think it’s a “belief system” to acknowledge less ice now vs. more ice in the past. I thought you might have some other references.
            Okay, here’s a source — NASA
            climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/land-ice
            [data provided by GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) for the period from 202-2014, for Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets]
            climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice
            [a different view of the data provided by satellite for NSIDC, for 1980 to 2012]
            climate.nasa.gov/interactives/global_ice_viewer
            [provides data on land glaciers, with sources ranging from GRACE, radar, and on-site surveys]
            The only prediction I’m making is that we’re not heading into an ice-age, mini or otherwise. But I’ll elaborate on that in another post. :)

          • OWilson

            Nice try, but no cigar. That’s a lot of dancing to keep up with.

            How about something simple like, the actual average global temperature in 1979 vs 2015

            and, The actual global ice extent in 1979 vs 2015.

            and, The actual sea level in 1979 vs 2015

            Simple, eh?

            Not, really. In spite of the $billions spent on study after confirming study, a 99% “consensus”, it is surprisingly difficult to find such published simple (up to date) information from an official source.

            I’ve been challenging warmistas to provide that simple data for years (I have it), but it seems the only folks who are plotting this are “deniers” like us.

            The rest just post reams of outdated stuff with multiple links to specific areas, like Greenland, West Antarctica, Alaska, in other words, just like YOU just did. Lol. All the “peer reviewed” papers that the UN relied on as well as “consensus” studies are well past their “best before” dates. :)

            Warmistas ask me rhetorical questions, but really don’t want to know how we arrived at our simple finding, they are only looking to find a hole in our logic. Having failed, they lose interest, and move on.

            After being frustrated, in the end, they usually give us the usual, rather circular, appeal to authority, last word, “Anyway, The Experts Know Best”. “You think you know more?” and “You’re not a scientist, why should we believe you?”

            Kinda like an adult version of, “so’s your old man”. Lol.

            That’s why I will not post the information for you, you would accuse me of misinterpreting, and , well the other stuff, you’ve done in the past.

            No, it is important that YOU find out for yourself what is actually going on. But I warn you, it is dangerous to some relationships, some careers, and not many have the stomach for it.

            Anyway, the ostensibly simple information mentioned above, would simply define the problem, if any.

            Pollution and wealth inequality are separate issues than can be dealt with in logical ways.

          • Mike Richardson

            I only provided satellite data, as you requested, from what most folks would consider a reputable source — the agency charged with obtaining and interpreting it. But I didn’t expect you’d be satisfied with that. As for “argument from authority,” nice try, but no cigar. The scientists involved in the research and in presenting the data aren’t doing so in isolation, and have provided ample evidence to support their theory. So it’s more a matter of well-proven expertise, same as you’d attribute to a good doctor providing you a diagnosis. Unless, of course, you’d demand the X-rays or lab reports yourself, to provide your own diagnosis, rather than accept an “argument from authority.” I suppose one doctor might be mistaken, but how many second opinions would satisfy you? Apparently, more than 90% wouldn’t be sufficient. Wouldn’t the simpler explanation be that maybe the majority of experts in field are actually correct, rather than referring to some information “out there” that’s supposed to vindicate your position? It would certainly seem to be the more logical proposition.

          • OWilson

            You missed the whole point of the exercise.

            Or just dissembling, as usual.

            You found some satellite data.

            My question to you is does that satellite data indicate to YOU, that over the last 36 years the increases in temperature, global ice cover and sea levels are a serious threat to humankind?

            A simple yes or no, would suffice, and put an end to our conversation, one way or the other.

            I wasn’t asking what the “majority of the experts” or the”conventional wisdom” was on the subject.

            There’s your appeal to authority again. Sigh! I am a patient man but you are starting to bore me again.

            And, doctors have nothing to do with it, they have many schisms in their ranks, homeopathy, psychiatry, chiropractic, placebo, drug treatments, allergists, abortion, holistic, changing opinions on everything from drugs to coffee, sugart, salt and fat, They obviously can all agree on something, like the need for more research money, but, like your climate scientists, they are only human, are frequently arrested, sued in courts, disbarred from practice and have made generations dependent on drugs of questionable efficacy.

            Using your analogy, you should never seek a second opinion. :)

        • Tom Yulsman

          Mr. Wilson, I have never been in the habit of attributing every natural disaster to global warming. I try to report accurately on what actual experts in this field have to say, and what peer-reviewed science reveals, all with appropriate caveats. We both know that it is a flawed system, but it’s the best one we have for ferreting out the truth about the natural world over the long term.

          Concerning extreme events, of course they have happened in the past. That says absolutely nothing about trends today and their causes. Conditions today are different than they were 100 years ago. Among other things, we have made a significant change to the chemical makeup of the atmosphere. As a result, some forms of extreme events have been occurring more frequently. At the same time, we know human societies can be very vulnerable to disasters such as floods, hurricanes and wildfires. And regardless of the role of climate change in these events, we could be doing a much better job of reducing those vulnerabilities. This is something that liberals and conservatives should be able to agree on. But evidently, even that is nearly impossible.

          Lastly, if you want to read posts written by someone who pretends to know more than the people who are actually doing the hard work of drilling ice cores, taking measurements on Arctic ice floes during winter, analyzing chemical signals contained in corals, and improving computer model algorithms, then you should hang out over at Marc Morano’s site, or somewhere else, not here. That’s not what I do. I am a science journalist. So I mostly (but obviously not always) report on science. Imagine that? And as a journalist, I do not pretend to be smarter than all those folks doing the hard work of science. That said, I do have a bullshit detector on a very sensitive setting. But I won’t assume I’m right. I will check out my suspicions. With people who actually are qualified to comment.

          • OWilson

            As a science journalist, I would think you have some responsibility to ensure balance.

            I don’t see balance here, only alarmist (see above) and political headlines from one side of the debate, and the derision of skeptics.

            Because there may be children watching (I’ve seen your stuff on classroom walls) it is necessary for others to point out the failed models on which are based significant social and humanitarian fears.

            And, of course, the failed projections themselves. :)

    • Jared Smith

      oh yeah, right. that’s just what we want. let’s trade slightly above and slightly below average years for years with record flooding and record droughts. in texas we had the same situation with reservoirs at record lows (and drought ridden land) and then in a few weeks time we had reservoirs overflowing (and flooded land) with farms and businesses under water. what little topsoil was left was washed away. you call that balance!

      just look at this recent SCIENTIFIC report to see how the extremes have gotten much worse. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-07/pifc-rhr070815.php

      guess what the title is. “Record-breaking heavy rainfall events increased under global warming”
      None of your statements anywhere provide even a single shred of evidence. you never provide ocean surface temperatures, land temperatures, drought statistics, flood statistics, ice melt statistics, plant blooming dates or animal migration dates.
      all of these things point to severe consequences of global warming and you never come up with one shred of evidence disproving them.

      • OWilson

        You mention so many variabilities that any two or three are likely to be near the ends of the bell curve at any given time. That’s just statistics. It’s too easy to pick the ones happening now.

        I do often refer to specifics, but ones that the warmers themselves claim are “benchmarks”.

        Foe example, here’s what I wrote about your “blooming dates” on this blog:

        “In the past the benchmark for the Global Warming season change was usually the Washington D.C. Cherry Blossom Festival.

        At the University of Washington who studied data on the Tidal Basin’s blossoms, they are considered “ideal indicators of the impacts of climate change.” (Washington Post)

        The concern was that the date of the famous Festival would have to be changed for the first time in history, “Our results suggest that the timing of (peak bloom) and the window of the National Cherry Blossom Festival . . . may mismatch towards the second half of this century,” they wrote.

        But, alas, nobody mentions these sad little blossoms anymore, as they failed to fit the Global Warming narrative.

        Turns out they’ll be late again this year and at this rate may require the Festival to be shifted to a later date, for, yes, Virginia, the first time in history.

        The first year of the Festival in 1921 the peak bloom was March 20th.

        This year (and last year) they will be arriving around April 12th, some 23 DAYS LATER.

        And, don’t get me started on the “ice free Arctic by 2015” predictions.
        Lol

        • Jared Smith

          sorry wrong again! you deniers always point to one example that is affected by WEATHER as opposed to hundreds or thousands of examples like real scientists do. We are talking about CLIMATE not WEATHER as your silly example demonstrates.

          • OWilson

            Somebody must be posting with your handle.

            Or you forgot that you just wrote this :)

            “None of your statements anywhere provide even a single shred of evidence. you never provide ocean surface temperatures, land temperatures, drought statistics, flood statistics, ice melt statistics, PLANT BLOOMING DATES, or animal migration dates.
            all of these things point to severe consequences of global warming and you never come up with one shred of evidence disproving them.”

            (I’ll just assume you didn’t check my links to NSIDC and NOAA)

            Lol

          • Jared Smith

            you are really good at making a laughing stock out of yourself. ice coverage??? really??? once again your confusing WEATHER for CLIMATE. ice coverage is easily affected by weather. what you need to be looking at is ice mass, ice volume and multi-year ice. please get back to us when you’ve educated yourself.

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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