Arctic Melt Raises Sea Levels and Reinforces Global Warming

June 14th, 2011 by Holli Riebeek
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If you want to see global warming’s signature, look to the Arctic. Up north, the air is warming and the ice is melting. As all of that reflective ice goes away, the Arctic Ocean is soaking up more sunlight, further enhancing warming. Melting Arctic ice is also contributing significantly to sea level rise.

For two decades, scientists have predicted these things would happen as the Earth warms, and now we see that the Arctic is changing much as expected. A new assessment report released by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program lays out the facts about many of the changes. AMAP is a working group of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental organization consisting of eight Arctic nations.


Copyright: Henrik Egede Lassen/Alpha Film

The report provides 15 key findings, and many of them are based on NASA satellite observations or science we’ve talked about on the Earth Observatory. Here’s a summary of the key findings:

  1. 1. The past six years (2005 – 2010) make up the warmest period ever recorded in the region, and these warm temperatures are causing changes.
  2. 2. Changes in snow cover and sea ice are interacting with the climate to increase warming. (More on this topic in a recent image of the day.)
  3. 3. Snow and sea ice cover a smaller area and are present for a less of the year, while permafrost is warming.
  4. 4. The largest and most permanent bodies of ice in the Arctic, including multi-year sea ice, mountain glaciers, and the Greenland ice sheet, have melted faster since 2000 than in the previous decade. (The Greenland work was also the topic of a recent image of the day.)
  5. 5. Model results reported in the last IPCC report underestimated how quickly sea ice is changing.
  6. 6. By 2050, snow will be deeper in places, but last for a shorter period of time.
  7. 7. The Arctic Ocean will be nearly ice-free during the summer within this century, probably within the next 30-40 years. (That’s not a hard prediction to believe considering the change seen over the last decade.)
  8. 8. Changes in the Arctic snow and ice fundamentally change ecosystems, destroying some habitats, which will impact Arctic peoples.
  9. 9. Observed and predicted changes in the Arctic will pose both challenges and opportunities to Arctic societies.
  10. 10. Transport in the Arctic will change, with impacts on day-to-day life and commercial activities.
  11. 11. Arctic infrastructure will probably be damaged as permafrost and near-shore sea ice melt.
  12. 12. Loss of snow and ice and the release of greenhouse gases from melting permafrost will enhance global warming.
  13. 13. Melting glaciers and ice sheets contributed more than 40 percent of the global sea level rise (about 3 mm per year) between 2003 and 2008. Further melting will contribute substantially to the 0.9 to 1.6 meter sea-level rise expected by 2100.
  14. 14. Everyone in the Arctic will have to adapt to climate change.
  15. 15. More research and monitoring are needed to answer questions about how fast the Arctic will change in the future.

This sort of assessment report is interesting not because it presents new science, but because it provides a rare full-picture view of what is going on. To me, the take-home message is that climate change in the Arctic is a reality and that changes are beginning to affect the rest of the planet by amplifying warming and pushing sea levels up.

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (they call themselves AMAP) also released a series of photographs and videos (3 minute and 15 minute versions) that show change. Warning—the video files are huge and take a very long time to download, even on a fast connection.

My favorite photo, shown above, illustrates the sheer volume of melt in a single spot on the Greenland Icesheet. The center of the image is a drained meltwater lake near Helheim glacier in southeast Greenland. The walls of blue ice are surreal.

I also really like Konrad Steffen’s photo of a crevassed area near the front of the Jakobshavn Glacier, West Greenland.

© Konrad Steffen/CIRES, University of Colorado

In satellite images, the glaciers look like smooth rivers of ice to me. This photo shows that the river isn’t so smooth!

15 Responses to “Arctic Melt Raises Sea Levels and Reinforces Global Warming”

  1. Vito says:

    How about a very large “reflector” to reduce how much the sunlight heats the waters?

    • Jeff says:

      Vito, there WAS a very large reflector – ice. It took incredible amounts of energy transfer and thousands of centuries to create.

  2. artsci says:

    Yes but since the sea levels will rise gradually even in worst case scenarios, how do you sell it to a primate evolved to think in terms of the 4 Fs? (hint: none of the 4 F’s is Future)

  3. Nahtzo says:

    Western science study is very compartmentalized. It would be good if the earth and the sun could be highlighted together since this relationship happens at the same time. We are hearing from our Western scientists the sun will not return to its normal cycle after Cycle 24 as it did not reverse poles as usual. This is not the first time this has happened. What effect will this have on global warming?

    Thank you for this site. I am very appreciate.

  4. Sonya says:

    If it was possible for the entire world to just stop all the fighting and start working together to reduce everything bad we do to the earth, it wouldn’t fix the problem; it was at least help. Just putting in my 2 cents, I have personally been trying to work on my own bad habits, cutting down on trash etc. I don’t even drive. I believe if everyone could work on there way of life, all together it would do some good. There should be a site out there that keeps on updating information on the earth and also infomation and Ideas on what you can personally do to make things better where you live. Anyway, I am a person who loves our earth because I know if it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t exsist and I thank the updated info.

  5. Faleh almutairi says:

    i think we should prepare because the critcal point isn’t when the arctic free from the ice it before, that when it reach 20% or 30% because the ice then can not influnce in the weather by cooling.these mecansim will shutdown then new one will start. So are we preapre.

    • best system says:

      I co-founded a foundation and we teach everyone about global warming. Some individuals say that it a farce. We believe it is indeed happening, but exaggerated. Either way it is at least to some extent, and is largely because of deforestation. we try to teach people to spread word that we must plant more trees and never underestimate the relevance and importance of greenery to the earth ecosystem.

  6. Jane Stevens says:

    Haven’t the volcanic eruptions affected the weather, such as the huge eruption in Iceland last year? Then this past winter there was enormous snowfall….lots of precipitation has occurred. Historically, large eruptions HAVE affected weather patterns for as long as 5 years.

  7. Jane Stevens says:

    Also, the eruptions alter the sunlight on earth, AND produce the deep colors at sunsets. My understanding is that precipitation needs ‘particles/ dust’. There have been quite a few eruptions in the past 30 years. It seems to me there is less drought now, but a lot of infrastructure on waterways and coasts. Perhaps not so much ‘global warming’ as the causes per se.

    • Actually Thoughtful says:

      Jane,
      Not so much. Less volcanic activity than usual in the current period, less sunlight, a La Nina – it SHOULD be cooling, but for global warming (human caused).

  8. Doc says:

    This article is beyond stupidity. The melting of ice already floating on the seas, regardless how high that ice column is, will not increase sea levels! Why? Its mass already displaces the sea upon which it floats. I cannot believe NASA would allow such idiocy to be posted.

    • Mike Carlowicz says:

      Doc — Estimates of sea level account for sea ice; or better to say, they don’t include it for the very reason you mention. And scientists have already accounted for this; no one is saying Arctic sea ice melt will raise the seas.

      Ice situated on land is the problem. The vast majority of the world’s freshwater is tied up in glaciers and ice sheets, particularly in Greenland and Antarctica. When that ice melts and moves off of land, sea level has to rise. See point 13 above.

    • kellybear7 says:

      I think you missed the point of the article: as the ice on the earth’s surface melts, LESS sunlight is reflected off the earth and the temperature increases in a region (over time). Higher temperatures cause more melting of glaciers and snow on land – which flows back to the ocean – INCREASING sea level

  9. Greg says:

    Oh my god, the first picture of the Arctic is absolutely stunning, although it shows the ice melting.

  10. Tom Mallard says:

    This page has a chart with Pinatubo’s eruption to put volcanic CO2 in context to our hyper-greenhousing the planet: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GISSTemperature/giss_temperature4.php

    We do have a chance to reduce CO2 with reforestation but going the wrong way on that with tar sands and Amazon deforestation, “New World post-pandemic reforestation helped start Little Ice Age, say Stanford scientists”: http://phys.org/news148817103.html

    Haven’t seen a model predicting only 1m/3ft by 2100 for some time, with the rapid change of the last decade in the Arctic & recent modeling is getting more accurately constrained by geography, my own take is to plan on 1m sea-level rise in 50-years, 3m/10ft in a century from today until we turn stop burning fossil fuels and stop the heavy deforestation.

    Won’t be this week so Plan A is in effect …

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