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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Climate Hustle

Is Greenland gaining or losing ice?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

While the Greenland interior is in mass balance, the coastlines are losing ice. Overall Greenland is losing ice mass at an accelerating rate. From 2002 to 2009, the rate of ice mass loss doubled.

Climate Myth...

Greenland is gaining ice
“[E]ven if it were true that Greenland’s ice had been melting at ‘new record’ rates, after seven and a half years of global cooling global warming cannot be the cause. The true position in Greenland is to be found in Johannessen et al. (2005), where satellite altimetry established that the mean thickness of the entire Greenland ice sheet had increased at 2 inches per year – a total of almost 2 feet – in the 11 years 1993-2003.” (Christopher Monckton)

Global warming affects Greenland in two ways. Warming temperatures cause the ice sheets to thin and lose ice mass around the edges. On the other hand, warmer temperatures also cause more snow to fall in Greenland's interior. Which has the greater effect? Is Greenland losing or gaining ice? 

Over the years, a variety of techniques have been employed to measure Greenland's mass balance. Snow pits are dug to measure snowfall. Stations are set up to measure incoming and reflected sunlight. Aircraft use laser altimetry to measure changes in surface elevation. Melt areas are determined by satellites reflecting microwaves off the surface. Satellite radar interferometry measure the horizontal movements of Greenland's glaciers. In 2003, NASA launched the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), using laser altimetry to more accurately measure changes in the Earth’s surface elevation.

All this data has been pieced together to form a continuous picture of Greenland's mass balance from 1958 to 2007 (Rignot 2008). There is robust agreement between the various independent measurements and a clear long term trend is apparent. In the 1960s, the ice sheet was losing 100 gigatonnes of ice per year. In the 1970s-1980s, the rate of ice loss slowed to near mass balance. In 1996, the rate of ice mass loss had increased to 97 gigatonnes per year. In 2007, the ice mass loss increased rapidly to 267 gigatonnes per year. To put this into perspective, a gigatonne is one billion metric tonnes, the mass of a cube of water that is 1 kilometre wide, tall, and deep.

So we see a long term trend of accelerating ice mass loss since the 1970s. This is confirmed by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite, measuring shifts in Earth’s gravity field. The GRACE data offers a complete picture of the entire ice sheet, allowing comparisons of mass changes in coastal regions (eg - elevations below 2000 metres) with the Greenland interior (above 2000 metres). Over the period 2003 to 2008, the coastal regions were observed to be losing ice mass while the interior was in approximate mass balance. The overall result is that the Greenland ice sheet is losing ice mass (Wouters 2008). 

Figure 1. Mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet for coastal regions below 2000 metres (top) and interior regions above 2000 metres (bottom). (Wouters 2008)

The latest GRACE data reveals more about the long term trend. Figure 2 shows the ice mass changes in Greenland from April 2002 to February 2010 (originally published in Velicogna 2009 with more recent data from John Wahr). The black line/crosses show monthly values of ice mass. The orange line is the best fitting quadratic trend. The best fitting trend finds that Greenland ice loss is accelerating at a rate of 30 Gigatonnes/yr2. Greenland's mass loss doubled over the 8 year period.

Figure 1: Greenland ice mass anomaly - deviation from the average ice mass over the 2002 to 2010 period. Black line shows monthly values. Orange line shows long-term trend (John Wahr).

The long term trend since the 1970s is accelerating ice mass loss. This is confirmed by gravity satellite measurements over the past 9 years which find that the rate of ice mass loss has doubled over the last 9 years. Just as with Antarctica, Greenland's ice sheet contribution to rising sea levels is continuously and rapidly growing.

Intermediate rebuttal written by John Cook

Update July 2015:

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial


Additional videos from the MOOC

Expert interview with Jonathan Bamber

Expert interview with Eric Rignot

Expert interview with Isabella Velicogna

Last updated on 6 July 2015 by pattimer. View Archives

Printable Version  |  Offline PDF Version  |  Link to this page

Further reading

NASA have a fascinating article Greenland's Ice Island Alarm which looks at the difficulties of measuring ice loss in Greenland and how different techniques using different date (eg - satellites measuring gravity or surface height changes) all agree that Greenland is losing between 150 to 180 gigatonnes of ice per year.

The following animation shows ice mass loss from Greenland as measured by the GRACE gravity satellites:


Comments 1 to 14:

  1. There is no argument of overall ice loss in Greenland. The glacial growth is not keeping up with glacial loss.
    The argument is the cause. Without the additional heat loss from the earth (vulcanism) through both tectonics and volcanism it might not be a net loss. In other words the reason behind Greenland's and the Arctics ice melt is in question. See the volcano thread.
  2. However:

    Science 4 July 2008: Vol. 321. no. 5885, pp. 111 - 113 DOI: 10.1126/science.1158540
    Large and Rapid Melt-Induced Velocity Changes in the Ablation Zone of the Greenland Ice Sheet
    R. S. W. van de Wal,* W. Boot, M. R. van den Broeke, C. J. P. P. Smeets, C. H. Reijmer, J. J. A. Donker, J. Oerlemans
    Continuous Global Positioning System observations reveal rapid and large ice velocity fluctuations in the western ablation zone of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Within days, ice velocity reacts to increased meltwater production and increases by a factor of 4. Such a response is much stronger and much faster than previously reported. Over a longer period of 17 years, annual ice velocities have decreased slightly, which suggests that the englacial hydraulic system adjusts constantly to the variable meltwater input, which results in a more or less constant ice flux over the years. The positive-feedback mechanism between melt rate and ice velocity appears to be a seasonal process that may have only a limited effect on the response of the ice sheet to climate warming over the next decades.
    Institute for Marine and Atmospheric research Utrecht, Utrecht University, Netherlands.
  3. The Michiel van den Broeke, et al. paper "Partitioning Recent Greenland Mass Loss" states:

    "Our results show that both mass balance components,
    SMB and D (eq. S1), contributed equally to the
    post-1996 cumulative GrIS mass loss (Fig. 2A)."

    But then, Fig.3 shows:

    Ice Discharge: -94 Gt/yr
    Surface Mass Balance: -144 Gt/yr

    Isn't this a contradiction?

    Then comes this statement: "A quadratic decrease (r^2 = 0.97) explains the2000–2008 cumulative mass anomaly better thana linear fit (r^2 = 0.90). Equation S1 implies thatwhen SMB-D is negative but constant in time,
    ice sheet mass will decrease linearly in time. If, however, SMB-D decreases linearly in time, ashas been approximately the case since 2000 (fig.S3), ice sheet mass is indeed expected to decrease quadratically in time"

    What is this "r^2 = 0.97" and how it is related to the equations:

    MB = ∂M/∂t = SMB – D (S1)
    δM = ∫dt (SMB-D) = t (SMB0–D0) + ∫dt (δSMB–δD) (S4)

    Any idea?
  4. From Peru,
    in fig. 3 they show mass change for the period 2003-2008; fig. 2A shows the cumulative mass loss from 1960. The former is a rate of mass loss, the latter just a mass.

    r^2 is the so called coefficient of determination. In the case of a simple linear fit it's equal to the square of the correlation coefficient. You may (crudely) interpret it as the fraction of the variation explained by the model curve.
  5. New research on the GRACE results argues there's exaggeration of the ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica data. The current estimates are supposed to ignore isostatic rebound caused by the weight reduction pressing down on the bedrock through the lost ice mass. E.g. this new report claims that the true loss in Greenland is only half of the previously reported 230 Gt per year.

    This spectacular reduction is, ofcourse, trumpeted around in the media and denial blogs as exiting news, but 104 Gt per year brings it right into the IPCC 2007 ballpark of 100+ Gt per year. It is, however, much lower then the latest GRACE numbers as published by Velicogna et al. 2009 and 2007, but in the same ballpark as GRACE numbers from Luthcke et al. 2007.

    The concept of isostatic rebound effecting the GRACE mass numbers isn't new either as it was already mentioned in e.g. the . It just puts some numbers to it.

    There's another, somewhat older,
    that delves into the apparent GRACE overestimation by comparing IceSat to GRACE results. But instead of isostatic rebound it seeks to explain the differences with ice density uncertainties. It also gives an IceSat number of -138 Gt per year for Greenland which is roughly equal to the results of this new research.

    So I don't know exactly what the great joy of this report is supposed to be for the contrarians. It just seems to me as confirming, refining and consolidating the science behind the apparent shrinking ice sheets.
  6. Sorry, I messed up two hyperlinks. Here they are:
    ... mentioned in e.g. the IPCC 2007 report.

    There's another, somewhat older research, ...
  7. Beautiful website about Greenland ice loss.

    Remote sensing data, surface observations and models indicate new records in 2010 for surface melt and albedo, runoff, the number of days when bare ice is exposed and surface mass balance of the Greenland ice sheet. This was especially true over over its west and southwest regions.

    Anyone not see the trend?

    In simple words, each bar tells us by how many standard deviations melting in a particular year was above the average. For example, a value of ~ 2 for 2010 means that melting was above the average by two times the ‘variability’ of the melting signal along the period of observation.
  8. There's a new peer-reviewed paper on this topic:

    "The role of albedo and accumulation in the 2010 melting record in Greenland" by M Tedesco, et al, Environmetal Research Letters #6 (January-March 2011)

    This paper can be accessed for free at:
    Response: [muoncounter] See also the discussion on the Flanner thread.
  9. Here's a story from the human perspective--Inuit Greenlanders and their changing culture due to changes in ice. It was published in Business Week of all things. Of course, it does hit on the drill, baby, drill aspect of Arctic change.
  10. We need accurate data from any source materials for a valid result. But there is a re-draw map controversy. Times Atlas is at the middle of a debate after publishing a map that revealed a 15 percent decrease in ice mass. Greenland ice mass maps causing political uproar . Greenland is losing some ice mass due to melting. Environmental change due to global warming brings big changes.
  11. The Times atlas controversy appears quite ridiculous. They initially very publicly claimed Greenland had lost 15% of its area, then had to start backpedalling as the complaints from the cryospheric community came rolling in (see RealClimate for a summary). mainly because the Times Atlas in their various statements kept claiming initially that their maps were accurate, then that it was not their fault, it was the fault of the NSIDC, then in their latest concession claim it highlights uncertainty in climate science! Yet all it does is highlight their own incompetence, in taking a >500m thickness map and thinking that this showed ice extent.

    From HarperCollins' last statement: "The one thing that is very apparent is that there is no clarity in the scientific and cartographic community on this issue ... ". Dead wrong. There is plenty of clarity on the issue in the science community, it's just that the Times Atlas cartographers got it totally wrong and can't admit it.

    In the age of Google Earth and freely-available MODIS imagery, as well as with a media engine keen to highlight "uncertainties" in climate science, such an error, which clouds public understanding of Greenland's actual melt, verges on the unforgivable.

    [DB] "the Times Atlas cartographers got it totally wrong and can't admit it."

    As one who spent many years as a professional cartographer, this statement (and your closing paragraph) are spot-on.

    The mind boggles.

  12. Last updated Nov 2011? I think this needs an update! Come on John, I'm sure you have nothing but time on your hands.  :)

  13. I wonder if a Walker type cell could develop between the ever warming Arctic Ocean and the Greenland Ice sheet.  Rising warm air contacts the ice, cools and flows down the ice sheet warming by compression and giving its heat to the ice.  Warm foen winds cause extreme melting when in contact with ice.

  14. ... interesting: I wish I knew the answer to your question!

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