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What is the story of Greenland and climate change?

As the world heads towards COP27, there is no room for bad climate change news in our mainstream newspapers. Let me share the latest news on what is happening in Greenland based on information from scientists whose primary focus includes studying the ice sheet and the Arctic region.

Drs. Twila Moon and Nikoosh Carlo, who conduct high northern latitude research, recently brainstormed with Johanna Chao Kreilick and myself about a recent paper that missed the mark on Greenland and climate change. We agreed that there is a lot of work to be done in all corners of the world to meet international agreements given the shrinking time and wiggle room that terrestrial systems could accommodate. This would require greater cooperation and less competition within the complex and connected system of our activities.

What sparked our discussion was that there were three of us in Greenland in September, when more than a third of the melting of the ice sheet surface peaked. This melt surface scale is unprecedented for September, making it a record-breaking event.

In the far north, the sun barely peeks above the horizon for part of the winter season. The transition to winter can be abrupt and rapid. Yet the seasonal changes that typically occur in September 2022 have been punctuated by several significant melting events on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Surprising?

Melting surface ice in Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) on September 5, 2022 (Video by B. Ekwurzel)

Two days later, as I watched large areas of dark gray melting ice above the ice cap, Dr. Moon told me that she and many others were studying Greenland and the changing conditions at the over the years expected this to happen even in September. year. These predictions at that time turned out to be true and were backed up by the huge investment in personnel, equipment and archiving of sightings. The unprecedented scale and timing of melting events will in turn feed into updated dynamic ice sheet models and global climate models.

Ice calving from the Eqi Glacier (Eqip Sermia) in Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) on September 3, 2022 (video by B. Ekwurzel)

The story of revealing how the Earth is a system with coherent physics

Greenland is just one example of a region on Earth that constantly proves what happens when H2O changes phase between solid, liquid and vapour. One of the fun things is when H2O can sublimate directly from a solid to the vapor state without passing through the liquid state. Over the past few decades, there have been many ways the Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass due to the basic physics of what is needed to stay in the solid form of H2O.

Over the decades, outlet glaciers have come into contact with increasingly warm seawater that can melt the underside of glacier ice. At times, weather conditions over Greenland can increase the chance that precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow. Rain falling on ice can accelerate a phase transition from solid ice to liquid water.

The 2021 Arctic Bulletin noted the first time it rained on top of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Many factors combine to give trends that Dr Moon and his colleagues believe tipped an ice sheet that was roughly in equilibrium until around 1990, when the “rapid reconfiguration” of the ice sheet’s coastal margins glacial occurred and accelerated until today. This has associated consequences in coastal regions in terms of icebergs, loss of mass, discharge of fresh water, sediments and nutrients brought to marine ecosystems, etc.

The Greenland Ice Sheet holds the equivalent of about 7 additional meters of global sea level rise if it were to disappear completely. This fact is one of many propelling action by those working on countries’ contributions to the Paris Agreement to place limits on the level of warming.

All actions on deck are necessary to comply with international agreements

Similar to the abrupt transition to winter in the Far North, the abrupt UN emissions gap report ahead of COP27 issued a warning. We need everyone on deck to navigate through this global wintry period of early attempts to increase the scale of action to match the pace of Earth systems changes that we have collectively accelerated. Just as there is jubilation when the northern sun rises above the horizon again after dark winter “days” and nights, the Paris Agreement has catalyzed a growing number of hands on the bridge to meet this challenge.

Take for example Dr. Carlo’s proposal for a climate response fund created by and for indigenous communities. Economist Kate Raworth, who found the data did not follow traditional economic approaches that were ill-suited to global challenges such as climate change or global pandemics. She introduced the donut economy to examine ways to thrive in the 21st century. Tereneh Idea, founder of Idia’Dega, collaborated with Olorgesailie Maasai Women Artisans of Kenya and Land Art Generator Initiative to create community-designed renewable energy.

And other hands will soon join those already on deck. The latest example is the US Inflation Reduction Act which is beginning to inject substantial resources into reducing the country’s carbon intensity which makes the largest historical contribution to climate change to date. The private sector, local public sector and other institutions will use this opportunity to overhaul transport, energy and help communities be climate resilient.

Still, the emissions gap warned that these efforts are not yet at scale. There will have to be many more hands on millions of different decks that can be a haven in a storm. Sail better in stronger winds with hands pulling old and new lines together. Intermittently hands will drop anchor, decks will drift aft and give time to think. Then, with renewed energy, the hands can pull the lines again to explore different directions to avoid delaying action. Hands that pass the lines to younger hands and collectively result in a multi-generational delay in ice sheet mass loss.

Are we up to this challenge?