Current melting of Greenland's ice mimicks 1920s-1940s event

December 10, 2007

Two researchers spent months scouring through old expedition logs and reports, and reviewing 70-year-old maps and photos before making a surprising discovery.

They found that the effects of the current warming and melting of Greenland 's glaciers that has alarmed the world's climate scientists occurred in the decades following an abrupt warming in the 1920s.

Their evidence reinforces the belief that glaciers and other bodies of ice are exquisitely hyper-sensitive to climate change and bolsters the concern that rising temperatures will speed the demise of that island's ice fields, hastening sea level rise.

The work, reported at this week's annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco , may help to discount critics' notion that the melting of Greenland 's glaciers is merely an isolated, regional event.

They recently recognized from using weather station records from the past century that temperatures in Greenland had warmed in the 1920s at rates equivalent to the recent past. But they hadn't confirmed that the island's glaciers responded to that earlier warming, until now.

“What's novel about this is that we found a wealth of information from low-tech sources that has been overlooked by most researchers,” explained Jason Box, an associate professor of geography at Ohio State University and a researcher with the Byrd Polar Research Center. Many researchers, he says, rely heavily on information from satellites and other modern sources.

Undergraduate student Adam Herrington, co-author on this paper and a student in the School of Earth Sciences, spent weeks in the university's libraries and archives, scouring the faded, dusty books that contained the logs of early scientific expeditions, looking primarily for photos and maps of several of Greenland 's key glaciers.

“I must have paged through more than a hundred such volumes to get the data we needed for this study,” Herrington said.

They concentrated on three large glaciers flowing out from the central ice sheet towards the ocean – the Jakobshavn Isbrae, the Kangerdlugssuaq and the Helheim.

“These three glaciers are huge and collectively, they drain as much as 40 percent of the southern half of the ice sheet. All three have recently increased their speed as the temperature rose,” Box said, adding that the Kangerdlugssuaq, at 3.1 miles (5 kilometers) wide is half-again as wide as New York's Manhattan Island .

Digging through the old data, Herrington found a map from 1932 and an aerial photo from 1933 that documented how, during a warm period, the Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier lost a piece of floating ice that was nearly the size of New York 's Manhattan Island .

“That parallels what we know about recent changes,” Box said. “In 2002 to 2003, that same glacier retreated another 3.1 miles (5 kilometers), and that it tripled its speed between 2000 and 2005.”

The fact that recent changes to Greenland's ice sheet mirror its behavior nearly 70 years ago is increasing researchers' confidence and alarm as to what the future holds. Recent warming around the frozen island actually lags behind the global average warming pattern by about 1-2 degrees C but if it fell into synch with global temperatures in a few years, the massive ice sheet might pass its “threshold of viability” – a tipping point where the loss of ice couldn't be stopped.

“Once you pass that threshold,” Box said, “the current science suggests that it would become an irreversible process. And we simply don't know how fast that might happen, how fast the ice might disappear.”

Greenland 's ice sheet contains at least 10 percent of the world's freshwater AND it has been losing more than 24 cubic miles (100 cubic kilometers) of ice annually for the last five years and 2007 was a record year for glacial melting there.

Source: Ohio State University, by Earle Holland

Explore further: New study brings Antarctic ice loss into sharper focus

Related Stories

New study brings Antarctic ice loss into sharper focus

February 21, 2018

A NASA study based on an innovative technique for crunching torrents of satellite data provides the clearest picture yet of changes in Antarctic ice flow into the ocean. The findings confirm accelerating ice losses from the ...

No glaciers, no water?

February 9, 2018

The world's largest rivers begin in glaciated mountain regions. However, climate change may cause many glaciers to disappear. Will water become scarce?

Recommended for you

Rainfall's natural variation hides climate change signal

February 22, 2018

New research from The Australian National University (ANU) and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science suggests natural rainfall variation is so great that it could take a human lifetime for significant climate ...

Seasonal patterns in the Amazon explained

February 22, 2018

Environmental scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have led an international collaboration to improve satellite observations of tropical forests.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (4) Dec 10, 2007
Why worry. Its cooling on earth now, despite the alarmism.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 10, 2007
Hush, NotParker, or there will be cries of a new ice-age. A citation of your claim would be nice, however.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 10, 2007
I've been looking for references. I know Neal Boortz had something posted, but he did not post a link to a news article, unfortunately.
2 / 5 (4) Dec 10, 2007
The sky is falling.
3 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2007
Southern Hemisphere is now down to only .246C above the 1961-1990 average.

1 / 5 (2) Dec 10, 2007
Extrapolating the 1920s data with modern simulations indicates the current world average temperature to be 200 degrees and rising.

Good thing we didn't have satellite data and super computers in 1920. Our grand parents would have been scared to death and we wouldn't be reading this.
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2007
Propaganda has hijacked the environmental movement. "Global Warming" is the hallmark propaganda.

The Environmental Movement started out focused on toxic waste, harmful waste, and plundering. The concerns were real: people, local environments, rivers and the ocean were being polluted by massive corporate and government outflows of toxic waste.

The attention has since been diverted from the real concerns of the environmental movement and now all the media says is "global warming."

Of course the globe is warming. We're still rebounding from an ice age.

Toxins still flow into streams, rivers and the oceans. Ecosystems are being destroyed by plundering. The ocean is dying from toxins, and every person walks around with untold toxins polluting their blood.

3 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2007
I suppose you can all pat yourselves on the back as the world drifts towards a point of no return with the knowledge that you won the argument. I'm sure your children will be happier with a parent who won an incorrect argument than one acted to prevent chaos.

Your ignorance is astonishing, but hey that's humans for you! The lengths people go to to avoid having to admit they are wrong. At least there are some ex skeptical scientists and journalists who do admit to being wrong so there may be hope.

I, on the other hand, am totally convinced we are screwed. If we can't get our own (western) house in order then we haven't a hope in hell of convincing the Chinese.
3.5 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2007
The report confirms others that showed Arctic warming in the 1920s and 1930s was more than today. No one blames that warm spell on CO2 so how can anyone conclude this current wamring is becaue of rising CO2 levels? Seems to me this data rules out CO2 as the controlling variable. Could it be something called the Arctic Oscillation that warms that part of the world for two or three decadesds then cools it again?
3.5 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2007
Malky wrote: "I suppose you can all pat yourselves on the back as the world drifts towards a point of no return with the knowledge that you won the argument."

Malky presumably refers to the so-called "tipping point" when the earth is supposed to enter unstoppable warming due to rising atmopospheric CO2 levels. Well, in the past, earth has had CO2 levels two and three times greater than we have now. So why are we not already past the tipping point?
2.3 / 5 (4) Dec 11, 2007
Malky wrote: "Your ignorance is astonishing, but hey that's humans for you!"
I am also astonished that some humans are so vain as to think they can stop something that has been happening as part of the earth's cycle as long as is known. It is also interesting to me that some humans think that humankind is so bad.
1 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2008
My volcanic rift valley spews CO2 on Malky's theories and invites him to walk in our suffocating gullies.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.