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Greenland is becoming a 'green' land as melting ice is replaced with vegetation

Over the past 30 years, Greenland has witnessed a significant transformation of its land mass. The warming climate has transformed once icy and snowy regions of the country into barren landscapes, wetlands, and shrubby areas ripe with plants and green vegetation.

Approximately 11,000 square miles (28,707 square kilometers) of its ice sheet and glaciers have melted, an area comparable to the size of Albania. This significant loss accounts for about 1.6% of its total ice coverage.

Satellite stories: Uncovering Greenland’s vegetation

This transformation is a direct consequence of rising air temperatures, which not only accelerate ice retreat but also affect land surface temperatures, greenhouse gas emissions, and landscape stability.

Researchers from the University of Leeds have meticulously analyzed satellite data from the 1980s to the 2010s to track these changes. Their findings reveal the profound impact of warmer temperatures on Greenland’s land cover.

Jonathan Carrivick, a key author of the study, emphasizes the linkage between rising temperatures and the observed land cover changes.

“Warmer temperatures are linked to the land cover changes that we are seeing on Greenland,” Carrivick said. “By analyzing high resolution satellite images, we have been able to produce a detailed record of the land cover changes that are taking place.”

Vanishing vistas: Greenland’s ice loss exposed

The ice loss predominantly occurs around the peripheries of existing glaciers and is notably pronounced in the north, south-west, west, mid-north-west, and south-east of Greenland.

Concurrently, the land area covered by vegetation has more than doubled, expanding by 33,774 square miles (87,475 square kilometers) over three decades.

This increase in vegetation is especially marked in the south-west, east, and north-east of Greenland, with a significant rise in dense wetland vegetation near Kangerlussuaq in the south-west and in isolated regions in the north-east.

Carrivick points out that the receding ice is setting off a cascade of environmental responses, leading to further ice loss and the ‘greening’ of Greenland.

“We have seen signs that the loss of ice is triggering other reactions which will result in further loss of ice and further ‘greening’ of Greenland, where shrinking ice exposes bare rock that is then colonized by tundra and eventually shrub,” Carrivick explained.

“At the same time, water released from the melting ice is moving sediment and silt, and that eventually forms wetlands and fenlands.”

Disappearing ice alters global temperatures

This phenomenon sees exposed bare rock gradually become colonized by tundra and eventually shrub. The melting ice also contributes to the formation of wetlands and fenlands by moving sediment and silt.

The retreat of ice impacts land surface temperatures through the albedo effect, where snow and ice, being highly reflective, help maintain cooler global temperatures.

As ice recedes, it unveils bedrock that absorbs more solar energy, thereby increasing land surface temperatures.

Melting ice also feeds into lakes, further raising temperatures since water absorbs more solar energy than snow and ice.

The research highlights a near fourfold increase in wetlands across Greenland, particularly in the east and north-east, which are significant sources of methane emissions.

The expansion of vegetation and wetlands not only signals but also exacerbates permafrost thaw, active layer thickening, and the release of greenhouse gases previously trapped in Arctic soils.

Floods, flora and vegetation for future Greenland

The team also developed a model predicting areas on Greenland likely to undergo marked and accelerated changes in the future.

Dr. Michael Grimes, lead author of the report, notes the simultaneous expansion of vegetation and retreat of ice and glaciers as significantly altering the flow of sediments and nutrients into coastal waters.

“These changes are critical, particularly for the indigenous populations whose traditional subsistence hunting practices rely on the stability of these delicate ecosystems,” says Grimes.

“The loss of ice mass in Greenland is a substantial contributor to global sea level rise, a trend that poses significant challenges both now and in the future.”

Greenland’s wake-up call

In summary, Greenland’s dramatic transformation underscores the urgent need for global action against climate change.

As ice retreats and vegetation expands, the island’s landscape undergoes profound changes, signaling broader environmental shifts that affect not only local ecosystems and indigenous communities but also contribute significantly to rising global sea levels.

The results of the University of Leeds’ study presented above vividly illustrates the cascading effects of warmer temperatures, offering an urgent call to action to address the root causes of climate change.

By understanding these changes and their impacts, we can work towards mitigating future risks and preserving the delicate balance of our planet’s ecosystems.

The full study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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