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Another massive Greenland glacier is rapidly melting

The 79° N Glacier in northeast Greenland, is showcasing alarming signs of climate change with dramatic ice loss. Researchers at the Alfred Wegener Institute have observed dramatic glacier thinning, with a loss of over 160 meters (525 feet) since 1998.

This rapid decline is attributed to warm ocean currents eroding the glacier from beneath and elevated air temperatures forming surface lakes. These lakes intensify the melt as their waters drain through vast channels in the ice into the ocean.

Remarkably, one such channel found was 500 meters (1,640 feet) tall, standing under ice that was just 190 meters (624 feet) thick, starkly highlighting climate change’s impact on this crucial glacier.

Studying the 79° N Glacier in Greenland

AWI scientists have conducted extensive research in this remote area of Greenland, establishing a base camp for operations. They used helicopters to deploy autonomous measuring devices to the glacier’s most inaccessible parts.

Subsequently, ground, aircraft radar, and satellite data have informed a study in The Cryosphere journal, exploring the glacier’s condition and how global warming impacts ice tongue stability. These findings are crucial for predicting the future of ice shelves in both Greenland and Antarctica.

Understanding glacial melt dynamics

Dr. Ole Zeising, an AWI glaciologist and study’s lead author, described their approach.

“Since 2016, we have been using autonomous instruments to carry out radar measurements on the 79° N-Glacier, from which we can determine melt and thinning rates,” Zeising explained.

“In addition, we used aircraft radar data from 1998, 2018 and 2021 showing changes in ice thickness. We were able to measure that the 79° N-Glacier has changed significantly in recent decades under the influence of global warming,” he concluded.

Warm ocean currents and atmospheric conditions

The study highlights the drastic effects of warm ocean currents and atmospheric warming on the glacier’s ice tongue.

It reveals high melt rates and the emergence of large channels beneath the ice, likely resulting from lake water draining through the glacier. Consequently, the glacier has significantly thinned over recent decades.

Interestingly, melt rates have declined since 2018, possibly from cooler ocean currents, highlighting glacier sensitivity to environmental shifts.

Preparing for the collapse

Prof. Dr. Angelika Humbert noted the glacier’s unusually quick adaptation to these changes. Consequently, she emphasized the complexity of glacier dynamics.

“We expect that this floating glacier tongue will break apart over the next few years to decades. We have begun to study this process in detail to gain maximum insight into the course of the process,” explained Humbert.

“Although there have been several such disintegrations of ice shelves, we have only been able to collect data subsequently. As a scientific community, we are now in a better position by having built up a really good database before the collapse,” she concluded.

What the future holds for Greenland’s 79° N Glacier

Looking ahead, scientists predict that Greenland‘s 79° N Glacier’s floating tongue may break apart in the coming years or decades.

This study seeks to understand ice shelf disintegration dynamics, historically challenging to study in real-time.

Creating a comprehensive database beforehand will better prepare scientists to grasp and potentially mitigate the consequences of these environmental shifts.

The situation of the 79° N Glacier serves as a critical wake-up call regarding the urgent need to address climate change. It highlights the interconnectedness of our planet’s systems.

Additionally, it underscores the profound impacts human activity can have on even the most remote and seemingly stable natural structures.

More about Greenland’s 79° N Glacier

As discussed above, the 79° N Glacier, also known as Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden Glacier, stands as a sentinel at the frontier of climate research and glacial study.

This glacier, remarkable both for its size and its significance to the Arctic environment, continues to draw the attention of scientists and environmentalists around the globe.

Geological significance

The 79° N Glacier is a prominent feature of Greenland’s northeastern coast. It flows directly into the Arctic Ocean, making it one of the largest glaciers contributing to the North Atlantic’s icebergs.

Along with its neighbor, the Zachariae Isstrom, it forms a critical part of the Greenland ice sheet’s dynamics, playing a significant role in global sea-level rise projections.

Climate change indicator

As an active indicator of climate change, the 79° N Glacier has been under intense scrutiny. Scientists monitor its ice flow rates, melt patterns, and calving events to understand better the impacts of global warming on polar ice masses.

Recent studies, like the one discussed previously by AWI, have shown accelerated ice loss from this glacier, signaling significant environmental transformations in the Arctic.

Research and exploration

The glacier is a hub for cutting-edge research and exploration. Teams from various international institutions embark on expeditions to drill ice cores, deploy satellite technology, and use underwater robotics to study the glacier’s behavior and its contribution to global sea level rise. These efforts are crucial for predicting future changes and developing strategies to mitigate climate impacts.

Conservation of Greenland’s 79° N Glacier

The 79° N Glacier in Greenland is a critical piece of the puzzle in understanding global climate dynamics. Through the continued efforts of the scientific community, the glacier serves as both a barometer for the changing climate and a beacon for action against the global challenge of climate change.

As we move forward, the story of the 79° N Glacier will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping our approach to environmental preservation and our understanding of the Earth’s delicate balance.

The full study was published in the journal The Cryosphere.


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