The Greenland Ice Sheet, or the Inland Ice, is a vast body of ice covering 1,710,000 square kilometers (660,235 sq mi), roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland. It is the second largest ice body in the world, after the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The ice sheet is almost 2,400 kilometers (1,500 mi) long in a north-south direction, and its greatest width is 1,100 kilometers (680 mi) at a latitude of 77°N, near its northern margin. The mean altitude of the ice is 2135 meters. The thickness is generally more than 2 km (1.24 mi) and over 3 km (1.86 mi) at its thickest point. It is not the only ice mass of Greenland – isolated glaciers and small ice caps cover between 76,000 and 100,000 square kilometers (29,344 and 38,610 sq mi) around the periphery. Some scientists predict that global warming may be about to push the ice sheet over a threshold where the entire ice sheet will melt in less than a few hundred years. If the entire 2,850,000 cubic kilometers (683,751 cu mi) of ice were to melt, it would lead to a global sea level rise of 7.2 m (23.6 ft).
The Greenland Ice Sheet is also sometimes referred to under the term Inland Ice, or its Danish equivalent, indlandsis. It is also sometimes referred to as an ice cap. "Ice sheet" is considered the more correct term, as "ice cap" generally refers to less extensive ice masses.
The ice in the current ice sheet is as old as 110,000 years. It is generally thought that the Greenland Ice Sheet formed in the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene by coalescence of ice caps and glaciers. It did not develop at all until the late Pliocene, but apparently developed very rapidly with the first continental glaciation.
The weight of the ice has depressed the central area of Greenland; the bedrock surface is near sea level over most of the interior of Greenland, but mountains occur around the periphery, confining the sheet along its margins. If the ice disappeared, Greenland would most probably appear as an archipelago, at least until isostasy lifted the land surface above sea level once again. The ice surface reaches its greatest altitude on two north-south elongated domes, or ridges. The southern dome reaches almost 3,000 meters (9,843 ft) at latitudes 63°–65°N; the northern dome reaches about 3,290 meters (10,794 ft) at about latitude 72°N. The crests of both domes are displaced east of the center line of Greenland. The unconfined ice sheet does not reach the sea along a broad front anywhere in Greenland, so that no large ice shelves occur. The ice margin just reaches the sea, however, in a region of irregular topography in the area of Melville Bay southeast of Thule. Large outlet glaciers, which are restricted tongues of the ice sheet, move through bordering valleys around the periphery of Greenland to calve off into the ocean, producing the numerous icebergs that sometimes occur in North Atlantic shipping lanes. The best known of these outlet glaciers is Jakobshavn Isbrae, which, at its terminus, flows at speeds of 20 to 22 meters or 65.6 to 72.2 feet per day.
On the ice sheet, temperatures are generally substantially lower than elsewhere in Greenland. The lowest mean annual temperatures, about −31 °C (−23.8 °F), occur on the north-central part of the north dome, and temperatures at the crest of the south dome are about −20 °C (−4 °F).
During winter, the ice sheet takes on a clear blue/green color. During summer, the top layer of ice melts, leaving pockets of air in the ice that makes it look white.
The ice sheet, consisting of layers of compressed snow from more than a hundred thousand years, contains in its ice today's most valuable record of past climates. In the past decades, scientists have drilled ice cores up to 4 kilometers (2.5 mi) deep. Scientists have, using those ice cores, obtained information on (proxies for) temperature, ocean volume, precipitation, chemistry and gas composition of the lower atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, solar variability, sea-surface productivity, desert extent, and forest fires. This variety of climatic proxies is greater than in any other natural recorder of climate, such as tree rings or sediment layers.
Positioned in the Arctic, the Greenland ice sheet is especially vulnerable to global warming. Arctic climate is now rapidly warming and much larger Arctic shrinkage changes are projected. The Greenland Ice Sheet has experienced record melting in recent years and is likely to contribute substantially to sea level rise as well as to possible changes in ocean circulation in the future. The area of the sheet that experiences melting has increased about 16% from 1979 (when measurements started) to 2002 (most recent data). The area of melting in 2002 broke all previous records. The number of glacial earthquakes at the Helheim Glacier and the northwest Greenland glaciers increased substantially between 1993 and 2005. In 2006, estimated monthly changes in the mass of Greenland's ice sheet suggest that it is melting at a rate of about 239 cubic kilometers (57 cu mi) per year. A more recent study, based on reprocessed and improved data between 2003 and 2008, reports an average trend of 195 cubic kilometers (47 cu mi) per year. These measurements came from the US space agency's GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite, launched in 2002, as reported by BBC. Using data from two ground-observing satellites, ICESAT and ASTER, a study published in Geophysical Research Letters (September 2008) shows that nearly 75 percent of the loss of Greenland's ice can be traced back to small coastal glaciers.
If the entire 2,850,000 km3 (683,751 cu mi) of ice were to melt, global sea levels would rise 7.2 m (23.6 ft). Recently, fears have grown that continued global warming will make the Greenland Ice Sheet cross a threshold where long-term melting of the ice sheet is inevitable. Climate models project that local warming in Greenland will exceed 3 °C (5.4 °F) during this century. Ice sheet models project that such a warming would initiate the long-term melting of the ice sheet, leading to a complete melting of the ice sheet (over centuries), resulting in a global sea level rise of about 7 meters (23.0 ft). Such a rise would inundate almost every major coastal city in the world. How fast the melt would eventually occur is a matter of discussion. According to IPCC, the expected 3 degrees warming at the end of the century would, if kept from rising further, result in about 1 meter sea level rise over the next millennium.
Some scientists have cautioned that these rates of melting are overly optimistic as they assume a linear, rather than erratic, progression. James E. Hansen has argued that multiple positive feedbacks could lead to nonlinear ice sheet disintegration much faster than claimed by the IPCC. According to a 2007 paper, "we find no evidence of millennial lags between forcing and ice sheet response in paleoclimate data. An ice sheet response time of centuries seems probable, and we cannot rule out large changes on decadal time-scales once wide-scale surface melt is underway."
The melt zone, where summer warmth turns snow and ice into slush and melt ponds of meltwater, has been expanding at an accelerating rate in recent years. When the meltwater seeps down through cracks in the sheet, it accelerates the melting and, in some areas, allow the ice to slide more easily over the bedrock below, speeding its movement to the sea. Besides contributing to global sea level rise, the process adds freshwater to the ocean, which may disturb ocean circulation and thus regional climate.
Recent ice loss events include:
• A major ice loss to northern Greenland's Petermann glacier, which occurred when the glacier lost 33 square miles (85 km2) of floating ice between 2000 and 2001.
• Between 2001 and 2005, a breakup of Sermeq Kujalleq, which erased 36 square miles (93 km2) from the ice field and raised awareness worldwide of glacial response to global climate change.
• In July 2008, researchers monitoring daily satellite images discovered that a 11-square-mile (28 km2) piece of Petermann had broken away.
• Two years later, in August 2010, a sheet of ice measuring 260 square kilometres (100 sq mi) broke off from the Petermann Glacier. Researchers from the Canadian Ice Service located the calving from NASA satellite images taken on August 5. The images showed that Petermann lost about one-quarter of its 70 km-long (43 mile) floating ice shelf.
Two mechanisms have been utilized to explain the change in velocity of the Greenland Ice Sheet's outlet glaciers. The first is the enhanced meltwater effect, which relies on additional surface melting, funneled through moulins reaching the glacier base and reducing the friction through a higher basal water pressure. (It should be noted that not all meltwater is retained in the ice sheet and some moulins drain into the ocean, with varying rapidity.) This idea was observed to be the cause of a brief seasonal acceleration of up to 20% on Sermeq Kujalleq in 1998 and 1999 at Swiss Camp. (The acceleration lasted two-three months and was less than 10% in 1996 and 1997 for example.) They offered a conclusion that the “coupling between surface melting and ice-sheet flow provides a mechanism for rapid, large-scale, dynamic responses of ice sheets to climate warming”. Examination of recent rapid supra-glacial lake drainage documented short term velocity changes due to such events, but they had little significance to the annual flow of the large glaciers outlet glaciers.
The second mechanism is a force imbalance at the calving front due to thinning, causing a substantial non-linear response. In this case, an imbalance of forces at the calving front propagates up-glacier. Thinning causes the glacier to be more buoyant, reducing frictional back forces, as the glacier becomes more afloat at the calving front. The reduced friction due to greater buoyancy allows for an increase in velocity. This is akin to letting off the emergency brake a bit. The reduced resistive force at the calving front is then propagated up glacier via longitudinal extension because of the backforce reduction. For ice streaming sections of large outlet glaciers (in Antarctica as well) there is always water at the base of the glacier that helps lubricate the flow. This water is, however, generally from basal processes, not surface melting.
Warmer temperatures in the region have brought increased precipitation to Greenland, and part of the lost mass has been offset by increased snowfall. However, there are only a small number of weather stations on the island, and though satellite data can examine the entire island, it has only been available since the early 1990s, making trending difficult. It has been observed that there is more precipitation where it is warmer and less where cooler.
Data from NASA's Polar program confirms that the average elevation change above 2,000 m (6,562 ft) "was not significant".
Several factors determine the net rate of growth or decline. These are:
1. accumulation of snow in the central parts
2. melting of ice along the sheet's margins (runoff) and bottom,
3. iceberg calving into the sea from outlet glaciers also along the sheet's edges
IPCC estimates in their third assessment report the accumulation to 520 ± 26 Gigatonnes of ice per year, runoff and bottom melting to 297±32 Gt/yr and 32±3 Gt/yr, respectively, and iceberg production to 235±33 Gt/yr. On balance, the IPCC estimates -44 ± 53 Gt/yr, which means that the ice sheet may currently be melting. The most recent research using data from 1996 to 2005 shows that the ice sheet is thinning even faster than supposed by IPCC. According to the study, in 1996 Greenland was losing about 96 km3 or 23.0 cu mi per year in mass from its ice sheet. In 2005, this had increased to about 220 km3 or 52.8 cu mi a year due to rapid thinning near its coasts, while in 2006 it was estimated at 239 km3 (57.3 cu mi) per year. It was estimated that in the year 2007, the Greenland ice sheet melting was higher than ever, 592 km3 (142.0 cu mi) a year. Also snowfall was unusually low, which led to unprecedented negative -65 km3 (−15.6 cu mi) Surface Mass Balance. If iceberg calving has happened as an average, Greenland lost 294 Gt of its mass during 2007 (one km3 of ice weights about 0.9 Gt).
According to the 2007 report from the IPCC, it is hard to measure the mass balance precisely, but most results indicate accelerating mass loss from Greenland during the 1990s up to 2005. Assessment of the data and techniques suggests a mass balance for the Greenland Ice Sheet ranging between growth of 25 Gt/yr and loss of 60 Gt/yr for 1961 to 2003, loss of 50 to 100 Gt/yr for 1993 to 2003 and loss at even higher rates between 2003 and 2005.
A paper on Greenland's temperature record shows that the warmest year on record was 1941 while the warmest decades were the 1930s and 1940s. The data used was from stations on the south and west coasts, most of which did not operate continuously the entire study period.
While Arctic temperatures have generally increased, there is some discussion over the temperatures over Greenland. First of all, Arctic temperatures are highly variable, making it difficult to discern clear trends at a local level. Also, until recently, an area in the North Atlantic including southern Greenland was one of the only areas in the World showing cooling rather than warming in recent decades, but this cooling has now been replaced by strong warming in the period 1979–2005.
Information based on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inland_Ice