Story at a glance

  • Researchers behind the study analyzed 40 years of satellite data from more than 200 large glaciers that are draining into the ocean around Greenland.
  • The study claims the glaciers will continue to shrink even if global temperatures were to stop rising today.
  • The ice loss started increasing more rapidly around the year 2000 while the amount of snowfall did not.

Greenland’s melting ice sheet has passed a tipping point of sorts, as glaciers on the island will continue shrinking even if global temperatures were to stop rising today, a recent study suggests. 

The study published in the journal Nature Communications Earth and Environment found the snowfall that replenishes the ice sheet each year cannot keep up with the ice that is melting from the glaciers and flowing into the ocean. The ice sheet loses approximately 500 billion tons of ice each year. 


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“We’ve been looking at these remote sensing observations to study how ice discharge and accumulation have varied,” Michalea King, Ohio State University researcher and the study’s lead author, said in a statement. “And what we’ve found is that the ice that’s discharging into the ocean is far surpassing the snow that’s accumulating on the surface of the ice sheet.”

Researchers behind the study analyzed 40 years of satellite data from more than 200 large glaciers that are draining into the ocean around Greenland. 

The scientists found that during the 1980s and 1990s the amount of snowfall largely replaced the amount of ice lost to the ocean. The ice loss started increasing more rapidly around the year 2000 while the amount of snowfall did not. 

Over the last decade, the amount of ice loss from glaciers has stayed about the same, meaning the ice sheet has been losing ice more rapidly than it’s being replenished, according to the study. 

“Glaciers have been sensitive to seasonal melt for as long as we’ve been able to observe it, with spikes in ice discharge in the summer,” King said. “But starting in 2000, you start superimposing that seasonal melt on a higher baseline--so you’re going to get even more losses.” 

Researchers said glaciers across Greenland have receded about 3 km on average since 1985. 

Melted ice from Greenland is a leading contributor to sea level rise. Researchers note that last year, enough ice melted or broke off the ice sheet to cause the oceans to rise by 2.2 millimeters in two months. 

Published on Aug 18, 2020