How warm air stirs Greenland’s waters and accelerates even submarine melting!

I seem to be on some sort of COVID plateau. My temperature hasn’t gone above 37.5,  and my throat and lungs have been mostly fine, but my ability to regulate my temperature is still wonky, and my snot production is still far too high. My eyeballs also aren’t thrilled about all of this.

That said, I’m starting to feel bad about just posting videos, so instead you get a somewhat gloomy climate science report! How excited you must be! I should say, however, that thus far the ocean is not hot enough to melt submarine vessels, in case the headline had you confused. We’ve got at least another couple years before the oceans get hotter than burning jet fuel.

Well, since you’re so excited, I won’t keep you waiting any longer. According to new research, the Greenland ice sheet may be more vulnerable to climate change than previously thought:

Rising air temperatures amplify the effects of melting caused by ocean warming, leading to greater ice loss from the world’s second largest ice sheet, a study reveals.

While previous studies have shown that rising air and ocean temperatures both cause the Greenland ice sheet to melt, the new study reveals how one intensifies the effects of the other.

Experts liken the effect to how ice cubes melt more quickly if they are in a drink that is being stirred – the combination of warmer liquid and movement accelerates their demise.

In Greenland, amplification occurs when warm air temperatures melt the surface of the ice sheet, generating meltwater.

Meltwater flowing into the ocean creates turbulence that results in more heat melting the edges of the ice sheet submerged in the ocean – so-called submarine melting.

The team found that air temperature has had almost as much impact as ocean temperature on submarine melting, with some regional variations.

For example, ocean temperature is the main factor that controls submarine melting in south and central-west Greenland, while atmospheric warming is equally damaging in the island’s northwest.

The findings suggest that if the atmosphere had not warmed since 1979, the retreat of Greenland’s glaciers, driven by submarine melting, could have been reduced by a half in the northwest region, and by a third across Greenland as a whole.

At this point I think it’s important to note that this is new understanding, not a new phenomenon. That means that even if this “stirring” effect is not accounted for in estimates and predictions for ice melt and sea level rise, it is accounted for in the actual data we have about sea level. This process has been ongoing for as long as ice melt has been increasing. Knowing about it will allow for more accurate estimates and predictions, which can only be a good thing. The bad news, of course, is that ice melt and sea level rise are likely to progress faster than currently predicted.

The effect we investigated is a bit like ice cubes melting in a drink – ice cubes will obviously melt faster in a warm drink than in a cold drink, hence the edges of the Greenland ice sheet melt faster if the ocean is warmer. But ice cubes in a drink will also melt faster if you stir the drink, and rising air temperatures in Greenland effectively result in a stirring of the ocean close to the ice sheet, causing faster melting of the ice sheet by the ocean. This unfortunately adds to the overwhelming body of evidence showing the sensitivity of the Greenland ice sheet to climate change, hence the need for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
-Dr Donald Slater, School of GeoSciences

Whenever we get bad news like this about the climate, it’s important to remember that for us, this changes very little. Those in power continue to demonstrate their inability to deal with climate change in a responsible manner, which means that we need to build the collective power to change who’s in power, or ideally end this antiquated insistence on having a ruling class. That means questioning “common sense” about the hierarchies and rules set over us, and it means encouraging people to think about direct action. It means organizing, and it means preparing for bad times so we can help our communities if the need arises. As ever, humanity’s greatest strength is our ability to cooperate, and we’ll need that going forward.

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