Northern hemisphere losing last dry snow region, says study

May 21, 2013
A new study shows summer melt events on the Greenland Ice Sheet are increasing in frequency due to rising temperatures. Credit: CIRES

(Phys.org) —Last July, something unprecedented in the 34-year satellite record happened: 98 percent of the Greenland Ice Sheet's surface melted, compared to roughly 50 percent during an average summer. Snow that usually stays frozen and dry turned wet with melt water. Research led by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences now shows last summer's extreme melt could soon be the new normal.

"Greenland is warming rapidly, and such ice-sheet-wide, surface-melt events will occur more frequently over the next couple of decades," said Dan McGrath, a University of Colorado Boulder doctoral student who works at CIRES. McGrath is lead author of a paper published online May 20 in Geophysical Research Letters and which reports a significant on the Greenland Ice Sheet.

McGrath and his coauthors calculate that by 2025 ice-sheet-wide melt events will have a 50 percent chance of occurring each year. That would signal the loss of the last major dry-snow zone—regions where the snow stays almost perpetually frozen—in the , McGrath said.

In the study, the researchers used air and snow temperature data from meteorological stations and to generate a 60-year record of at the Summit research station, the highest and coldest station on the ice sheet.

From 1982 to 2011, near- increased by an average of 0.16 degrees Fahrenheit every year. "This is six times faster than the global average," McGrath said.

The warming at Summit is also accelerating. From 1950 to 2011, the average rate of warming was 0.04 degrees F per year. But from 1992 to 2011, that number jumped to 0.22 degrees F per year.

The warming has had a dramatic effect on the ice sheet's structure, the scientists report. The ice sheet's ablation zone—the lower parts that lose more snow and ice each year than they accumulate—is expanding up the ice sheet by about 145 feet per year.

"This increases the area over which the ice sheet sheds mass while shrinking the zone that gains mass," McGrath said. "That will have an obvious impact on the ice sheet's mass balance." 

Additionally, the dry-snow line—above which the snow doesn't melt—is migrating up the ice sheet by about 115 feet per year. "These zones are indicators of the health of the ice sheet," McGrath said. "And the changes we are observing are an early but important sign that the ice sheet is in transition."

The changes could increase the amount of solar radiation the ice sheet absorbs—since wet snow reflects less sunlight than dry snow—increasing the melt rate as well. It also could potentially speed up the ice sheet's flow, though more work needs to be done to untangle these impacts.

These findings are supported by results from other researchers who have found that the ice sheet is losing more than 275 billion tons of ice per year—equivalent to the weight of 750,000 Empire State Buildings. "This imbalance is making a significant contribution to sea-level rise," McGrath said.

The summit of the has experienced surface melt in the past, McGrath says. But the melt events in the past were rare, happening once every century or two —in fact, only eight times in the last 1,500 years—the exception rather than the norm. Now the norm is shifting toward a new, slushy set point.

"Progressive increases in surface melt have occurred throughout the satellite record, but the last decade has been exceptional," McGrath said. "If each of these events keeps being so far above the average, the average will change to reflect that."

The scientists' findings come at a time when Arctic sea ice extent is also at record lows. "-wide melting coupled with the loss of Arctic sea ice points to profound changes occurring to the Arctic climate system," McGrath said. "These are not small, insignificant events we're witnessing."

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User comments : 9

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SolidRecovery
2.6 / 5 (20) May 21, 2013
As in the arctic, the snow melt will only accelerate. Liquid water is not as reflective as ice. It will capture more light, which will lead to more melting. Eventually the melting will cause cracks. The cracks will weaken the ice sheets and let water erode more of the ice. I would not be surprised if the near surface temperatures continued to accelerate.
PPihkala
4.5 / 5 (8) May 21, 2013
I would not be surprised if the near surface temperatures continued to accelerate.

I think this is a great understatement. Considering the fact that we pollute biosphere continuously and the effects of that are cumulative, the fact is that the warming of environment will continue. It will continue long after we can break the trend and start to remove the pollution. If that does not happen very soon, there will be big events coming. And they are unpleasant and costly. Anyone fancy a tornado?
MaiioBihzon
2.4 / 5 (17) May 24, 2013
And there are already plans to take advantage of the loss of Arctic ice and make use of the once-mythical/soon-real Northwest Passage. The glass is half-full. Of melted polar ice. I guess it's nice something positive can be found in rapid global climate change.

Now where are all the deniers with their tales of "global cooling"?
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (9) May 24, 2013
Eventually the melting will cause cracks. The cracks will weaken the ice sheets
But glaciers are full of cracks and running water. Obviously you dont know anything about the subject. This is like speculating that a single volcano underneath the antarctic ice could endanger a whole ice sheet.

Live and learn.
SolidRecovery
2.6 / 5 (18) May 24, 2013
Eventually the melting will cause cracks. The cracks will weaken the ice sheets
But glaciers are full of cracks and running water. Obviously you dont know anything about the subject. This is like speculating that a single volcano underneath the antarctic ice could endanger a whole ice sheet.

Live and learn.

You can't speculate and think two different systems follow the same weathering. Live and learn.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (9) May 24, 2013
You can't speculate and think two different systems follow the same weathering
And how would you know? You didnt know that glaciers always contain cracks and running water.

Live and learn. And THEN comment.
SolidRecovery
2.6 / 5 (18) May 24, 2013
I am wasting my time talking to otto, but I will try to answer your questions in the most layman way possible.
1. Surface ice goes through seasonal changes as well as daily changes. Example of that being day and night as well as seasonal changes. During the winter there is little light hitting the arctic and the sun is always shining during the summer. It is a dynamic system susceptible to change.
2. Under the ice volcano is a fairly static system that has little outside changes due to the volume of ice separating from the atmosphere. The only way this system will change is if either the ice changes or there are unforeseeable changes inside the planet.
3. According to fracture mechanics, if you have crack initiation it will follow by crack propagation in an accelerating rate. Water melt certainly starts crack formation. Though it might not be everywhere at once.
There are other variables as well. I hope this will jump start your brain.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (11) May 24, 2013
I am wasting my time talking to otto, but I will try to answer your questions in the most layman way possible.
1. Surface ice goes through seasonal changes as well as daily changes. Example of that being day and night as well as seasonal changes. During the winter there is little light hitting the arctic and the sun is always shining during the summer. It is a dynamic system susceptible to change.
2. Under the ice volcano is a fairly static system that has little outside changes due to the volume of ice separating from the atmosphere. The only way this system will change is if either the ice changes or there are unforeseeable changes inside the planet.
3. According to fracture mechanics, if you have crack initiation it will follow by crack propagation in an accelerating rate. Water melt certainly starts crack formation. Though it might not be everywhere at once.
There are other variables as well. I hope this will jump start your brain.
Ahaahaaa this sounds SO familiar.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (10) May 24, 2013
There are other variables as well
Indeed there are. Do you have time to GOOGLE them all? Buzzle might be faster-