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What Do Satellite Images Of “Unprecedented Ice Melt” In Greenland Actually Tell Us?

It’s really hot and almost all the ice just melted in Greenland. Is this the beginning of the end? Things may be less apocalyptic than they appear. (Or they might not.)

What Do Satellite Images Of “Unprecedented Ice Melt” In Greenland Actually Tell Us?
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According to NASA, measurements from three independent satellites reveal that “Greenland’s surface ice cover melted over a larger area than at any time in more than 30 years of satellite observations.” Ninety-seven percent of its ice sheet surface experienced thawing in mid-July.

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A NASA image of Greenland on July 8. The red is melted ice, the white, unmelted ice.

Given that this story comes just days after news that an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan had broken off Greenland’s Petermann Glacier, it’s certainly worth our attention–especially now that we’re finally seeing major news reports linking climate change to extreme weather, it seems like a very big deal. And lots of news outlets are running with the head-turning story.

A NASA image of Greenland on July 12. The red is melted ice, the white, unmelted ice.

And given that the Northern hemisphere is being pummeled by an unprecedented heat wave, it’s not crazy to think that there is now a new climate where the ice melts on Greenland every summer.

But the Earth is a big, complicated place that sometimes defies our simple explanations for things. NASA notes that even the Summit Station in Central Greenland, the highest point of the ice sheet, showed some melting (potentially scary!). However, that summit experiences some melting every 150 years or so; the last such occurrence was in 1889.

Sure, that’s a little ahead of schedule, but if the melting is roughly on time–or “right on time,” according to Lora Koenig, a Goddard glaciologist and a member of the research team analyzing the satellite data–then can we really link it to climate change?

It’s hard to say. If it keeps happening, then it’s not part of a cycle, but of a new normal where it’s not so icy in Greenland. The real take away from this story, though, might be about the burden of technological advances that enable this sort of amazing real-time data collection. It’s easy to draw horrified conclusions from preliminary data, but sometimes you have to wait and see what it means.

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