Scientists say Greenland’s ice sheets may have reached a “tipping point,” a stage of irrevocable melting, which would have dire consequences for people living on coastlines and beyond around the world, according to the New York Times.
The latest research, published in the science journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds to a growing consensus that Greenland’s melting will only accelerate over time. As ice turns to water, it becomes darker and absorbs more sunlight. This, in turn, raises the surrounding temperature and causes more ice to melt.
Such steep sea level rise would harm or destroy coastal agricultural systems, contaminate bodies of potable water, intensify tropical storms, and more. For example, countless rice farmers throughout coastal Vietnam have had to abandon their land in recent years because of saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels.
The world’s poor are most likely to be impacted by rising sea levels because of a lack of resources to relocate as coastal conditions deteriorate. Countries around the world are grappling with the concept of “climate change refugees,” and are trying to draft protocols for dealing with climate-caused relocation.
The United Nations’ Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, adopted in 2018, creates a legal framework for people displaced by natural disasters, both gradual and abrupt — an important milestone. It’s largely understood that people whose homes are destroyed by hurricanes need disaster relief, but little provisions have been made until now for people whose homes are gradually submerged by rising sea levels.
New Zealand in particular has emerged as a pioneer in this space, pledging to become the first country to relocate climate change refugees from other countries.
In 2013 and 2014, Greenland’s mile-thick ice sheets entered a reprieve from melting — a variable weather pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation switched to a cooling phase — and it seemed like the region may have stabilized. But the pattern soon oscillated again and the melting resumed, to the tune of 400 billion tons of ice per year — quadruple the melt rate in 2003.
“To build an ice sheet is a very long, elaborate process. But it could take really a very short time to melt it all,” said Marco Tedesco, a glaciologist at Columbia University. “This water flowing here, it has a long memory — it probably froze before Rome was born. What boggles me is the power we humans have to squeeze changes into such a small amount of time. This blanket of ice, it’s like an elephant’s skin. It’s a very powerful dormant animal. But when we wake it up, it has the power to destroy everything it runs through.”
A glacier calves icebergs into a fjord off the Greenland ice sheet in southeastern Greenland, Aug. 3, 2017.
The absolute melt of Greenland is unlikely to happen within this century, but current rates of greenhouse gas emissions indicate that it’s likely to happen at some point.
As a result, many scientists emphasize that using the frame of a “tipping point” is dangerous because it suggests that interventions are no longer possible.
On the contrary, if countries aggressively cut their greenhouse gas emissions and transitioned to renewable sources of energy, Greenland’s ice sheets could be saved from melting, according to scientists who spoke with the Times.
“We may be able to control how rapidly the ice sheet changes in the future,” Luke D. Trusel, a glaciologist at Rowan University and an author of another report on Greenland, told the New York Times. “By limiting greenhouse gas emissions we limit warming, and thus also limit how rapidly and intensely Greenland affects our livelihoods through sea-level rise. That, it seems, is our call to make.”