If you could sum up climate change’s impact on the Arctic in one image, you’d be hard pressed to find something better than this satellite view, which shows the meltdown of one of the largest stores of ice on Earth while a bushfire rages in the distance.
Here it is, below, courtesy of satellite image wizard Pierre Markuse and our planet, which is quickly becoming a smoke-filled, waterlogged hellscape.
Greenland’s past few years of bushfires are one of those weird and ominous impacts of climate change. While the one currently burning is nowhere near as big as the ones in other parts of the Arctic from Siberia to Alaska, they’re clearly not good since there is basically no recorded history of fires in Greenland.
Satellite carbon dioxide emissions data — which goes back 17 years — shows this is easily the highest-emitting year ever recorded. The current blaze, visible in the lower left of the picture, is smouldering through carbon-rich peat.
But if the fire is ominous, what’s happening to Greenland’s ice is truly terrifying. A heat wave has essentially acted like a blow torch on the ice sheet’s surface, causing a widespread melt. The ponds visible in the satellite image are indicative of a much broader meltdown. An estimated 56 per cent of the ice sheet surface went into meltdown on Thursday local time, sending 38 billion litres of water into the ocean.
That’s more than 15,100 Olympic swimming pools, and 45 billion litres could runoff into the ocean today. The snowmelt at the margins of the ice sheet is clearly visible in satellite imagery as well, underscoring just how widespread the melt event is. Video has revealed water rushing off the ice sheet in raging torrents choked with sediment.
While parts of the ice sheet are likely to firm up in the coming days, the damage will be done. The ice sheet has been shedding ice six times faster than just 40 years ago, which is a very worrying trend for a couple of reasons. The extra runoff has messed with ocean circulation as cold, freshwater piles up in the North Atlantic.
All the extra water also contributes to sea level rise as well. If the whole ice sheet were to melt, it would raise sea levels up to 6m higher. That isn’t imminent, but even this week’s melt event will be enough to cause measurable sea level rise. And that serves as a reminder that what happens in Greenland doesn’t stay there.