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Alarming study: Previously stable glaciers are now rapidly disappearing

As the impacts of climate change become increasingly evident, Greenland’s once stable Steenstrup Glacier is now retreating at a staggering pace. Recent findings about stable glaciers is raising alarm among scientists. 

A study led by researchers at The Ohio State University has discovered that between 2018 and 2021, the Steenstrup Glacier has retreated approximately 5 miles. It has also thinned by about 20 percent and doubled the amount of ice it discharges into the ocean, increasing its velocity fourfold.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study highlights the remarkable transformation of Steenstrup. It now ranks among the top 10% of glaciers contributing to the region’s total ice discharge. The rapid change in the stable glacier is considered extraordinary within the realm of Greenland ice formations.

The Steenstrup Glacier is a vital part of the Greenland Ice Sheet. It encompasses nearly 80 percent of the world’s largest island. The ice sheet is the single largest contributor to global sea rise from the cryosphere – Earth’s frozen water ecosystem. The region plays an essential role in balancing the global climate system. However, due to global warming, it has been steadily shrinking. The ice sheet loses hundreds of billions of tons of ice annually.

Tidewater glaciers, which come into contact with the ocean, have been responsible for much of this ice loss over recent decades. Glaciologists believe that the influx of warming waters from the Atlantic Ocean into Greenlandic fjords may be linked to the increase in ice discharge. These are crucial oceanic gateways that can influence the stability of local glaciers and the health of polar ecosystems.

How the study of stable glaciers was done

The research team, led by Thomas Chudley, aimed to test this theory by examining the Steenstrup Glacier. Located in the southeastern region of Greenland, scientists also refer to it as K.I.V Steenstrups Nordre Bræ. Chudley, who conducted the study as a research associate at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, is currently a Leverhulme research fellow at Durham University in the UK.

“Up until 2016, there was nothing to suggest Steenstrup was in any way interesting,” Chudley explained. “There were plenty of other glaciers in Greenland that had retreated dramatically since the 1990s and increased their contribution to sea level rise, but this really wasn’t one of them.”

Scientists had long believed that the Steenstrup Glacier, due to its isolated position in shallow waters, was relatively immune to the rising temperatures that had destabilized numerous other regional glaciers. However, Chudley and his colleagues discovered evidence of melt in the stable glaciers after analyzing observational and modeling data from previous remote sensing analyses.

“Our current working hypothesis is that ocean temperatures have forced this retreat,” Chudley said. “The fact that the glacier’s velocity has quadrupled in just a few years opens up new questions about how fast large ice masses can really respond to climate change.”

How glacial melting will impact global sea level rise

Satellite data has allowed glaciologists to estimate the potential volume of glacial ice stored at the poles. They can also now predict the impact it could have on sea levels. 

According to Thomas Chudley, a Leverhulme research fellow at Durham University in the UK, the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet could raise Earth’s sea levels by nearly 25 feet. The collapse of the Antarctic Ice Sheet could lead to a staggering 200-foot rise.

Although it would take centuries for Greenland and Antarctica to collapse entirely, Chudley explained that the global cryosphere, particularly the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, could potentially cause sea levels to rise about six feet this century if it undergoes collapse. 

With approximately 10% of the world’s population living in low-lying coastal zones, any significant rise in sea levels poses an increased risk to these communities from storm surges and tropical cyclones.

In the United States, coastal cities in Florida and Louisiana are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of sea level rise, Chudley noted. However, he also emphasized that it may not be too late to prevent such a future. If climate policies evolve rapidly, we have a chance to halt the worst of sea level rise.

Understanding how stable glaciers respond to warming waters

The recent study on Steenstrup Glacier’s unprecedented retreat serves as a stark reminder. Even glaciers previously considered stable can experience sudden and rapid retreat as warmer waters intrude and influence new environments. The research not only highlighted the need for continued scientific observation of Steenstrup Glacier but also emphasized that other similar glaciers warrant attention due to their potential to retreat in response to warming waters.

Understanding the interactions between stable glaciers and warming waters could provide valuable insights into how glaciers thrive in different locations worldwide. This knowledge may even serve as an indicator of potential environmental changes in the future.

“What’s happening in Greenland right now is kind of the canary in the coal mine of what might happen in West Antarctica over the next few centuries,” Chudley said. “So it would be great to be able to get into the fjord with real on-the-ground observations and see how and why Steenstrup has changed.”

The Steenstrup Glacier’s unprecedented retreat serves as a stark reminder of the impacts of climate change. It also raises urgent questions about the future stability of the world’s glaciers and their role in shaping Earth’s climate system.

The research was supported by NASA and included contributions from other Ohio State co-authors Ian M. Howat and Adelaide Negrete of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, as well as Michalea D. King of the University of Washington.

More about glacial melting and stable glaciers

Glacier melting is an increasingly concerning phenomenon due to the impacts of climate change. The melting of stable glaciers has a range of consequences for both humans and the planet Earth. Here are some of the key aspects of glacier melting and its effects:

Sea Level Rise

As stable glaciers melt, the water contributes to rising sea levels. This can lead to the inundation of coastal areas. The result would threaten the homes and livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Low-lying islands and coastal cities are at particular risk from flooding, erosion, and storm surges.

Loss of Freshwater Resources

Glaciers act as natural reservoirs, storing freshwater in the form of ice. As they melt, this water is released. This can lead to an initial increase in water supply for downstream communities. However, over time, as glaciers continue to shrink, the availability of freshwater resources may decline. This would affect agriculture, drinking water supply, and hydroelectric power generation.

Impact on Ecosystems

Glacier retreat can disrupt ecosystems, as many species depend on the cold, nutrient-rich meltwater for survival. The loss of stable glaciers can lead to the disappearance of unique habitats, endangering the species that rely on them.

Stable Glaciers and Climate Feedback Loops

Melting glaciers expose dark surfaces that were previously covered by reflective ice. These darker surfaces absorb more solar radiation, which leads to further warming and increased melting, creating a positive feedback loop. This process, known as the albedo effect, can amplify the impacts of climate change.

Ocean Circulation

Melting glaciers release freshwater into the oceans, which can disrupt ocean circulation patterns. As freshwater is less dense than saltwater, it can lead to stratification and alter the mixing of ocean waters. This can, in turn, affect weather patterns and the distribution of heat around the planet.

Geophysical Impacts

The melting of stable glaciers can also have geophysical consequences. As the weight of ice is removed from the Earth’s crust, the land beneath may rise. This process is called isostatic rebound. This can lead to earthquakes and volcanic activity in some regions.

Economic and Social Impacts

The melting of glaciers can have profound economic and social implications. Disruptions to water supply, agriculture, and energy production can lead to food and water shortages, loss of property, and economic instability. Moreover, the displacement of populations due to flooding and loss of land can result in social tensions and increased migration.

In summary, glacier melting is a complex issue with widespread implications for human societies and the planet as a whole. Addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial to slowing the rate of glacier melt. It also plays an important role in mitigating its impacts on ecosystems, economies, and communities around the world.


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