One of Greenland’s biggest glaciers is crumbling. The melting of the huge Zachariae Isstrom glacier on Greenland’s east coast could mean a rise in sea levels by half a metre.
Scientists are warning that a major glacier is breaking up and rapidly adding to the volume of water in the North Atlantic. The Zachariae Isstrom glacier holds enough water to raise sea levels by half a metre. The break up of the ice means that sea levels will rise for decades to come. Another larger glacier to the north of Zachariae Isstrom is vulnerable to breaking up and is also melting rapidly. Should the Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden glacier break up as well, the combined effect could raise sea levels by one metre.
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The huge Zachariae Isstrom glacier in northeast Greenland started to melt rapidly in 2012 and is now breaking up into large icebergs where the glacier meets the sea, monitoring has revealed.
The calving of the glacier into chunks of floating ice will set in train a rise in sea levels that will continue for decades to come, the US team warns.
“Even if we have some really cool years ahead, we think the glacier is now unstable,” said Jeremie Mouginot at the University of California, Irvine. “Now this has started, it will continue until it retreats to a ridge about 30km back which could stabilise it and perhaps slow that retreat down.”
Mouginot and his colleagues drew on 40 years of satellite data and aerial surveys to show that the enormous Zachariae Isstrom glacier began to recede three times faster from 2012, with its retreat speeding up by 125 metres per year every year until the most recent measurements in 2015.
The same records revealed that from 2002 to 2014 the area of the glacier’s floating shelf shrank by a massive 95%, according to a report in the journal Science. The glacier has now become detached from a stabilising sill and is losing ice at a rate of 4.5bn tonnes a year.
Eric Rignot, professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, said that the glacier was “being hit from above and below”, with rising air temperatures driving melting at the top of the glacier, and its underside being eroded away by ocean currents that are warmer now than in the past.
“The glacier is now breaking into bits and pieces and retreating into deeper ground,” he said. The rapid retreat is expected to continue for 20 to 30 more years, until the glacier reaches another natural ledge that slows it down.
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