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Is Greenland gaining or losing ice?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

Greenland on the whole is losing ice, as confirmed by multiple satellite and on the ground field measurements.

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)

Confusion caused by anecdotes of structures being buried by accumulating snow on Greenland's ice sheet leads some skeptics to believe Greenland is Gaining Ice. As always, the best way to tease out the truth here by following the research of scientists investigating Greenland's ice mass balance.

In general, the best available science tells us that Greenland is losing ice extensively (Figure 1) and that these losses have drastically increased since the year 2000.

Figure 1: Estimated Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance changes since 1950 using three different methods (Jiang 2010). Mass Balance Measurement Techniques are discussed here.

The evidence suggested by a multitude of different measurement techniques suggests that not only is Greenland losing ice but that these ice losses are accelerating at a rapid pace (Velicogna 2009). Further evidence suggests that although ice losses have up to this point primarily occurred in the South and Southwest portions of Greenland, these losses are now spreading to the Northwest sector of the ice sheet (Khan et al 2010).

Although there have been some gains at high altitudes, significant ice losses are occurring at low altitudes (Wouters 2008) along the coastline where glaciers are calving ice into the oceans far quicker than ice is being accumulated at the top of the ice sheet (Rignot and Kanagaratnam 2006).

In conclusion Greenland is losing ice extensively along its margins where fast flowing ice streams are pushing more ice into the ocean than is gained in the center of the ice sheet. For more information on how ice sheets lose mass, a more comprehensive discussion is available here.

Basic rebuttal written by Robert way

Update July 2015:

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


Last updated on 27 August 2018 by pattimer. View Archives

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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:

Further viewing

This video published on December 15, 2019 by Dave Borlace of "Just have a think" provides information about a new study finding that Greenland is melting seven times faster than 30 years ago .



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Comments 26 to 45 out of 45:


    DMI said the Greenland ice sheet likely grew in 2016-17 (this was released on October 16, 2017) and 2017-18 (this was released on October 27, 2018). This makes many of the posts above look silly. The faint of heart can take solace that they don't have to look at Tony Heller's website. But, they could look at DMI's, NSIDC's, etc.

  2. Molsen - perhaps you could share the link which demonstrates your point? Knowing Heller, there are a no. of ways to cherry-pick data. Deniers often jump on Surface mass balance which is always positive (even in 2012) and last two summers have been high. The ice sheet gains more ice from precipation than melts every year. However, SMB doesnt take acount of calving losses which are what determine ice sheet mass.  Your statement does not appear to be backed by the ice mass data seen here.

  3. The silly fellow Molsen managed not to link to his two DMI said 'thises', so here are the links to the two 'thises' I assume were intended. They are both CarbonBrief posts of the date stated by guest authors Dr Ruth Mottram, Dr Peter Langen and Dr Martin Stendel from DMI.

    The first 'this' (16/10/17) actually says of the 2017 melt year "This year, thanks partly to Nicole’s snow and partly to the relatively low amounts of melt in the summer, we estimate the total mass budget to be close to zero and possibly even positive." The "main culprit" was thus named as the snowfall brought to Greenland by Hurricane Nicole in October 2016.

    The second 'this' (27/10/18)  declines to be drawn on the 2017/18 total mass balance, deferring to GRACE-FO which was expected to be soon up-&-running in Oct 2018 although at time of writing GRACE-FO output data (rather than data collection) is yet to show itself.

    So no sign of pronouncements that Greenland ice sheet "likely grew"  throughthese years. Then perhaps there are other 16/10/17 & 27/10/18 Greenland news posts that do pronounce on Total Mass Balance, Or is Molsen misinterpreting Surface Mass Balance data?


    [PS] Keep it seemly.

  4. You should read the Polar Portal Season Report for 2018, published in November 2018, by DMI. It notes some positive things, such as Greenland's glaciers losing only a minor amount of area in the last six years.

    That's fantastic news. Take a look at the helpful graph DMI provides on page 5. Will the trend continue this year? I dunno, but it's interesting the last six years have gone unnoticed by the MSM, etc.


    [JH] Please provide a link to the report you have referenced. 

    PS - When it comes to the impacts of Greenland's melting ice sheet, it is volume, not area, that matters most.

  5. I believe the report he references is pg 5 graph show rates of reduction in glacier area has reduced since 2012 (which is good news). However, last mass graph..

    doesnt look so hopeful, but we are all waiting for Grace-FO to provide data for the current situation. I dont see anything that would suggest this article is outdated.


  6. The graph supports the article being updated. The mass loss since 2012 has been much less than what occurred from 2006-2012 — i.e., the mass loss since 2012 is probably one-quarter what is was in the preceding six years.

    However, the second paragraph of this entry, with its use of the phrase "drastically increased since the year 2000" misses that entirely.

    So, the end of the second paragraph should have the following added to be accurate and fair:

    "but the rate of decrease has slowed remarkably since 2012 for reasons that are unknown. This declining rate of mass loss has gone unacknowledged by the media and climate scientists. On the contrary, the media (at least) have reported that the opposite is happening. At this point, that is not the case."

    A fair statement?

  7. Surface melt and snowfall mass balance are not the sum of the total mass balance equation by far.  Because calving and discharge from the margins are not factored into that.

    Per ther DMI:

    "the ice sheet lost 34 gigatonnes (1 Gt is 1 billion tonnes) annually in the period 1992-2001, corresponding to 0.1 mm annual sea level rise. In 2002-2011, the ice sheet lost 215 Gt per year (0.6 mm annual sea level rise)."


    "The term surface mass balance is used to describe the isolated gain and loss of mass of the surface of the ice sheet – excluding the mass that is lost when glaciers calve off icebergs and melt as they come into contact with warm seawater."

    Which brings it into good agreement with NASA:

    "Data from NASA's GRACE satellites show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica (upper chart) and Greenland (lower) have been losing mass since 2002. Both ice sheets have seen an acceleration of ice mass loss since 2009. (Source: GRACE satellite data)

    Please note that the most recent data are from June 2017, when the GRACE mission concluded science operations. Users can expect new data from GRACE’s successor mission, GRACE Follow-On, in the summer of 2019."


    GRACE-Greenland to May 2017

  8. According to the NASA (GRACE) data, the average loss from 2009 to 2013 was 399 gigatonnes per year. From 2013 to 2017, the average loss per year was 190 gigatonnes per year.

    The statement that there has been an acceleration of ice mass loss since 2009 is factually wrong. At the very least, there has been an interesting pause in that "acceleration" since 2013. It's kind of like minimum summer sea ice extent in the Arctic: it has kind of been going sideways (i.e., not declining) for the last 12 years or so. Again, interesting....

  9. Just because you cherry-pick different dates to suit your purpose does not invalidate the statement:

    "Data from NASA's GRACE satellites show that the land ice sheets in both Antarctica (upper chart) and Greenland (lower) have been losing mass since 2002. Both ice sheets have seen an acceleration of ice mass loss since 2009."

  10. Recommended supplemental reading:

    Cold Water Currently Slowing Fastest Greenland Glacier by Carol Rasmussen, JPL/NASA, Mar 25, 2019

  11. Actaully I agree that changes in Arctic are interesting - we have had a sequence of warm winters and cloudy summers which are certainly of scientific interest in understanding weather. Likewise the effects of flip in NAO on weather patterns are very important for future weather prediction. However, thinking that these represent a climatic change is wishful thinking.

  12. The GRACE data show that ice loss accelerated in 2009 and then slowed down in 2013. Are you suggesting otherwise, Daniel Bailey? The underlying data are invalidated by a poorly drafted statement?

    And, scaddenp, let's see what happens in the future; as articles on the growing Jacobshavn glacier note, scientists do not understand the processes behind the Greenland ice melt as well as they thought a few years ago. Who knows what they'll know in a few year?

  13. Molsen, if you are hoping against hope that suddenly melt is going into reverse, then you are choosing to ignore much of the science published on Greenland by not looking at the drivers for is happening in the system. I sure know which way I would bet! This is like people starting the "warming stopped in 1998 2016" refrain. Hope springs eternal but you are going to be disappointed. Weather does not equal climate. Come back again and give us your opinion when, say, NAO flips again.

  14. Molsen @37,

    You talk of "poorly drafted statements" and ask whether GRACE data showed "accelerated" ice loss in 2009 and then "slowed down" in 2013.

    Looking at the data, the 2009 net ice loss decelerated from the previous year's average of 266Gt/yr to 199Gt/yr. And the 2013 net ice loss also decelerated relative to the previous year, from 428Gt/yr to 327Gt/yr (although, as the graph of the data shows, the data for these later years is missing a few months).

    CarbonBrief Greenland Net Ice Loss

    The rate of net ice loss is highly variable. I'm sure you could pedantically cherry-pick some of the data to demonstrate that the net ice loss is decelerating throughout the entire period. It is likewise with the ice loss from glaciers like the Jacobshavn glacier although I think you rather underestimate the knowledge of scientists. A very recent comment on the Jacobshavn glacier is HERE.

  15. Given the total volume of ice in the Greenland ice sheet, it seems that a little more than 99.99 per cent of it does not melt in even a bad year. Is that statistically significant from zero?

  16. To clarify: is the percentage that melts (i.e., the 0.01 per cent - at worst -statistically different from zero?


    [DB] Annual losses from the Greenland Ice Sheet are 286 Gt/year.  Pretty statistically significant, even relative to the Empire State Building:

    Annual Greenland Ice Sheet Mass losses

  17. Molsen @40,

    You say that "it seems that a little more than 99.99 per cent of it does not melt in even a bad year." That is actually wrong. It is about 99.93% that annually "does not melt." The ice sheet averages something like 1,500m in depth and the melt is about 1m of that. What you appear to ignore is the annual +800mm precipitation of snowfall which must be added to the net Ice Mass figures to give the total annual melt.

    However, I will assume you are interested in net Ice Mass as that has been your interest up-thread and that would be roughly equal annually to 0.01% of the total ice mass. The statistical significance of the net ice loss is not in any way dependent on the total mass of ice suffering the loss. Rather it is a matter of whether the measurement of Ice Mass is noisy enough that the negative trend could be purely a product of the noise. This can be determined statistically.

    In the case of the GRACE data of total Greenland Ice Mass graphed repeatedly on this web-page, the negative trend is a long long way from being statistically insignificance. A quick linear regression through the data with the annaul cycle removed  (2003-2015, the data which was readily available) gave a trend of -273.4Gt/yr +/-7.3Gt/yr(2sd). So the Confidence interval would be -266 to -281, all a long way from zero.

  18. If we're losing, on average, 0.01% of total Greenland ice mass per year, then we can expect to lose 1% of the total mass in a century. That doesn't sound so bad until you realize it assumes the melt rate does not accelerate. 

  19. GRACE data ends in 2016. Do we have GRACE-FO data, yet, so we can extrapolate what has happened in the intervening years?

  20. icowrich - try Regular updates from FO are really just getting started.

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