Climate change sends melting Greenland ice ‘past tipping point’

The melting of Greenland's ice cap has gone so far that it is now irreversible, with snowfall no longer able to compensate for the loss of ice even if global warming were to end today, according to researchers.

Climate change sends melting Greenland ice 'past tipping point'
An aerial view above the town of Kangerlussuaq in Greenland.Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

“Greenland's glaciers have passed a tipping point of sorts, where the snowfall that replenishes the ice sheet each year cannot keep up with the ice that is flowing into the ocean from glaciers,” said a statement from Ohio State University, where several authors of a study published August 13th in Communications Earth and Environment are based.

Climate change is having a devastating effect on the world's glaciers, with the ice melt posing a threat to millions of people around the world.

Alarming reports about the ice melt on the vast Arctic island — which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet — have multiplied in recent years.

Eighty-five percent of the surface of Greenland, an island of two million square kilometres or four times the size of France, is covered in ice.

“The study confirms results from a lot of other studies … that the combination of melt and calving of icebergs explains the large amount of ice lost from Greenland over the last couple of decades,” Ruth Mottram, a climatologist at Denmark's Meteorological Institute told AFP.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the ice cap lost around 450 billion tonnes of ice per year, which was compensated by snowfall, the scientists said after analysing 40 years of data.

But the ice melt has accelerated this century, climbing to 500 billion tonnes and it is no longer sufficiently replenished with snow.

“The Greenland ice sheet is losing mass at accelerated rates in the 21st century, making it the largest single contributor to rising sea levels,” the study said.

The melting ice actually causes more ice to melt, as the meltwater that collects on the ice sheet absorbs more of the Sun's radiative force than snow and ice do — snow and ice reflect sunlight back into space.


In addition, the loss of ice exposes the permafrost, or frozen soil, which when thawed releases powerful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, trapping heat.

Therefore the melting ice is not just a symptom of global warming, it is also becoming a driver of global warming.

While researchers are in agreement that the Greenland ice melt is worrying, not all agree that it has reached a 'tipping point'.

“We don't know how much greenhouse gas concentrations will rise,” Mottram said.

The published results show that “even if we stabilised temperatures (and greenhouse gas emissions) at the present level, the ice sheet would still continue to melt, but only until the size of the ice sheet is once more in balance with the climate,” she said.

As the ice sheet is rapidly losing mass in contact with the ocean, once the ice loses contact with the water the massive ice discharge will stop.

Meanwhile, a recent study from Britain's University of Lincoln concluded that Greenland's ice melt alone is expected to contribute 10-12 centimetres to the world's rising sea levels by 2100.

The UN's IPCC climate science advisory panel said in 2013 it expected sea levels to rise 60 centimetres by the end of the century.

READ ALSO: Danish climate body wrongly reported Greenland heat record

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Greenland passes law banning uranium mining

Greenland's parliament voted Tuesday to ban uranium mining and exploration in the vast Danish territory, following through on a campaign promise from the ruling left-wing party which was elected earlier this year.

Greenland's parliament voted on November 9th to ban uranium mining. Prime Minister Mute Egede, pictured, said earlier this month he wanted to join the Paris climate agreement.
Greenland's parliament voted on November 9th to ban uranium mining. Prime Minister Mute Egede, pictured, said earlier this month he wanted to join the Paris climate agreement. File photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

The Inuit Ataqatigiit (IA) party won snap elections in April that were originally triggered by divisions over a controversial uranium and rare earth mining project.

The IA won 12 seats in the 31-seat Greenlandic national assembly, beating its rival Siumut, a social democratic party that had dominated politics in the island territory since it gained autonomy in 1979.

On Tuesday 12 MPs in the national assembly voted to ban uranium mining, with nine voting against. 

The IA had campaigned against exploiting the Kuannersuit deposit, which is located in fjords in the island’s south and is considered one of the world’s richest in uranium and rare earth minerals.

The project, led by the Chinese-owned Australian group Greenland Minerals, has not yet been officially abandoned.

But French group Orano announced in May it would not launch exploration despite holding permits to do so.

The massive natural riches of the vast island — measuring two million square kilometres, making it larger than Mexico — have been eyed by many, but few projects have been approved.

The island is currently home to two mines: one for anorthosite, whose deposits contain titanium, and one for rubies and pink sapphires.

While Greenland’s local government is not opposed to all mining activities, it has also banned all oil exploration over concerns for the climate and the environment.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Mute Egede said he wanted to join the Paris climate agreement, which Greenland is one of the few countries not to have ratified.

READ ALSO: Greenland seabed scoured for marine diamonds