Greenland ice sheet (CLIM 009) - Assessment published Feb 2014
Climate change (Primary topic)
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
- CLIM 009
Key policy question: What is the trend in the mass and the melting area of the Greenland ice sheet , and what is the effect on global sea level?
- The Greenland ice sheet is the largest body of ice in the Northern Hemisphere and plays an important role in the global climate system. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet has contributed about one fifth to global sea level rise in the last decade.
- The Greenland ice sheet has lost ice during the last two decades at an increasing rate. The average ice loss increased from 34 billion tonnes per year (sea-level equivalent 0.09 mm per year) over the period 1992-2001 to 215 billion tonnes per year (0.59 mm per year) over the period 2002-2011.
- Model projections suggest further declines of the Greenland ice sheet in the future but the uncertainties are large. The upper bounds for the sea-level contribution during the 21st century and the 3rd millennium (until the year 3000) are 16 cm and 4-5 m, respectively.
The mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet is determined by snow fall, summer melting of snow, submarine melting at the tongue of marine outlet glaciers, and icebergs breaking off the glaciers. Surface melting occurs when warm air and sunlight first melt all the previous year’s snow and then the ice itself. The changing balance between accumulation on the one hand and melting and calving on the other hand determines the future development of the Greenland ice sheet. Several different methods are used to monitor the changes of the Greenland ice sheet. The overall conclusion of 18 recent studies is that Greenland is losing mass at an accelerating rate (Figure 1). The average ice loss increased from 34 (uncertainty interval: -6 to 74) billion tonnes per year over the period 1992-2001 to 215 (157 to 274) billion tonnes per year over the period 2002-2011. The average ice loss in the last decade corresponds to a sea-level rise of approximately 0.6 mm per year, which is about a fifth of the total sea-level rise of 3.2 mm per year during this period [i]. Ice is lost from Greenland, in roughly equal amounts, through surface melting and ice motion, and both components have increased [ii].
The area subject to summer melt has increased significantly over recent decades (Figure 2) [iii]. Exceptional melting was recorded on the Greenland ice sheet in the summer of 2012. For a few days in July 2012 nearly the entire ice cover experienced some degree of surface melting. The extreme melt event coincided with an unusually strong ridge of warm air over Greenland in the summer of 2012. Ice core data suggest that large-scale melting events of this type have occurred once every few hundred years on average, the most recent ones in 1889 and in the 12th century [iv]. It is not currently possible to tell whether the frequency of these rare extensive melt events has changed.
All recent studies indicate that the mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet, and the associated contribution to global sea-level rise, will be increasingly positive, and that scenarios of greater radiative forcing lead to a larger sea level contribution. Recent studies give an upper bound of about 16 cm sea-level rise from the Greenland ice sheet during the 21st century for a high emission scenario and somewhat lower values for lower emission scenarios [v]. One recent study estimated the Greenland ice sheet contribution until the year 3000 to be 1.4, 2.6 and 4.2 m for the emissions scenarios SRES B1, A1B and A2 (with stabilized greenhouse concentrations after 2100), respectively [vi].
On multi-millennial time scales, the Greenland ice sheet shows threshold behaviour due to different feedback mechanisms. If a temperature above the threshold is maintained for an extended period, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet self-amplifies, which eventually results in near-complete ice loss (equivalent to a sea level rise of about 7 m). Coupled climate-ice sheet models with a fixed topography (that do not consider the feedback between surface mass balance and the height of the ice sheet) estimate the threshold in global mean surface temperature above which the Greenland ice will completely melt to lie between 2°C and 4°C above preindustrial levels [vii]. In contrast, the only study presently available with a dynamical ice sheet suggests that the threshold could be as low as about 1°C above pre-industrial levels. The complete loss of the Greenland ice sheet is not inevitable because it has a long timescale. Complete melting would take tens of millennia near the threshold and a millennium or more for temperatures a few degrees above the threshold [viii].
[i] D. G. Vaughan et al., “Observations: Cryosphere,” in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis., ed. T. F. Stocker et al. (Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Chapter 4, http://www.climatechange2013.org/report/full-report/; Andrew Shepherd et al., “A Reconciled Estimate of Ice-Sheet Mass Balance,” Science 338, no. 6111 (November 30, 2012): 1183–1189, doi:10.1126/science.1228102.
[ii] M. van den Broeke et al., “Partitioning Recent Greenland Mass Loss,” Science 326, no. 5955 (November 12, 2009): 984–986, doi:10.1126/science.1178176; Vaughan et al., “Observations: Cryosphere.”
[iii] X. Fettweis et al., “Melting Trends over the Greenland Ice Sheet (1958–2009) from Spaceborne Microwave Data and Regional Climate Models,” The Cryosphere 5, no. 2 (2011): 359–375, doi:10.5194/tc-5-359-2011; Vaughan et al., “Observations: Cryosphere.”
[iv] S. V. Nghiem et al., “The Extreme Melt across the Greenland Ice Sheet in 2012,” Geophysical Research Letters 39, no. 20 (2012): L20502, doi:10.1029/2012GL053611.
[v] J. A. Church et al., “Sea-Level Change,” in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. T. F. Stocker et al. (Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Chapter 13, http://www.climatechange2013.org/report/full-report/.
[vi] H. Goelzer et al., “Millennial Total Sea-Level Commitments Projected with the Earth System Model of Intermediate Complexity LOVECLIM,” Environmental Research Letters 7, no. 4 (December 1, 2012): 045401, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/045401; Church et al., “Sea-Level Change.”
[vii] J. G. L. Rae et al., “Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Mass Balance: Evaluating Simulations and Making Projections with Regional Climate Models,” The Cryosphere 6, no. 6 (November 9, 2012): 1275–1294, doi:10.5194/tc-6-1275-2012; X. Fettweis et al., “Estimating Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Mass Balance Contribution to Future Sea Level Rise Using the Regional Atmospheric Climate Model MAR,” The Cryosphere 7 (2013): 268–489, doi:10.5194/tc-7-469-2013; Church et al., “Sea-Level Change.”
[viii] Alexander Robinson, Reinhard Calov, and Andrey Ganopolski, “Multistability and Critical Thresholds of the Greenland Ice Sheet,” Nature Climate Change 2, no. 6 (June 2012): 429–432, doi:10.1038/nclimate1449; Church et al., “Sea-Level Change.”
Recent mass balance estimates of the Greenland ice sheet
provided by Utrecht University (UU)
Annual cumulated melt area of the Greenland ice sheet
provided by University of Liège (ULg)
More information about this indicator
See this indicator specification for more details.
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoHans-Martin Füssel
EEA Management Plan2013 2.0.1 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
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This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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