Greenland just recorded its warmest temperature in 1,000 years. According to a recent study published in Nature, cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet over the last decade show a 1.5 °C increase compared to climate reconstructions of the past millennia.
What, exactly, does this Greenland average temperature tracking mean for ice caps, sea levels and the world at large? Here’s the hot take.
Getting Warmer — What’s Happening in Greenland?
As noted by The Washington Post, 2023 temperatures in Greenland are significantly above average, with some areas smashing previous records. For example, Greenland’s capital city, Nuuk, saw temperatures hit 59.4 °F (15.2 °C) on March 5, breaking both the previous March and April records of 55.7 °F (13.2 °C) and 58.2 °F (14.6 °C), respectively. Compared to the average temperature this time of year, this high is even higher: Typically, Nuuk comes in at 23 °F (-5 °C) in March. The new record is fully 32 degrees (18 degrees in Celsius) above normal.
Farther north, temperatures are even more extreme, with some areas of Greenland seeing a 50 °F (28 °C) jump over seasonal averages. This country-wide warming trend is linked to what’s known as the “Greenland block” — a zone of high pressure that isn’t going anywhere, causing the air beneath it to sink and warm. The block may be tied to a sudden warming trend in Earth’s stratosphere that disrupted the polar vortex in February and pushed colder air further south.
The result is a dual concern for Greenland: Not only are current temperatures significantly above recent averages, but millennial measurements are also on the rise, suggesting this is more than a one-off hot spell.
Ice Cap Concerns: Sea-ing the Impact
What does Greenland global warming mean for the country’s ice caps and the world at large? In a word: melting — and lots of it.
Current data suggests that melting already underway will cause sea levels worldwide to rise about 10.6 inches. As SciTechDaily points out, however, this is a low estimate. If Greenland continues to see record-breaking temperatures, it’s possible for sea levels to rise by 30 inches or more. This estimate only includes the increase from Greenland — melting of other Atlantic ice sheets could add to this total.
For humankind, this melt means problems. First up are the direct effects on people who live in low-lying coastal areas. With more than 680 million people living at or very near sea level, these rising waters could spell disaster for small communities and big cities alike as infrastructure ends up permanently underwater or battered by continual coastal floods.
There are also growing concerns about what we may find under the ice as it melts. Some of what’s revealed may be valuable, such as precious metals or fossil fuels that have remained untouched for millennia. But thawing ice sheets may uncover bacteria, viruses and pollutants that could cause problems for humans. According to a study published in Nature Climate Change in September 2021, one gram of permafrost may contain thousands of dormant microbes. While most of these microbes are likely harmless to humans, some could be viruses we’ve never seen or ancient diseases that could make a concerning comeback.
Consider a report from Siberia in 2016: As noted by NPR, dozens of people were hospitalized and one child died after an outbreak of anthrax. The culprit? An infected reindeer frozen in permafrost for 75 years until a heatwave hit. When it thawed, the anthrax bacteria became active and covered the nearby tundra in spores. Other reindeer picked up the anthrax and were then killed and eaten by humans, kickstarting the outbreak.
The effect of global warming on Greenland also comes with concerns about pollutants, such as dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), which haven’t been used for decades but are trapped in layers of permafrost. As icemelt continues, these chemicals could leech into seawater and circulate around the globe.
Reducing the Effects of Global Warming on Greenland
Is there anything we can do about Greenland average temperature issues? Yes and no. Put simply, there’s no going back. Melting ice can’t suddenly be reversed, and rising sea levels would take decades to fix.
But it’s not all bad news. According to Horizon, the E.U.’s Research and Innovation Magazine, while Greenland’s ice sheet is melting, the driving component of this phase is air temperature — the hotter the air, the more the ice melts. Sea ice-melt, meanwhile, is tied to water temperature, and with water temperatures rising more quickly than their atmospheric counterparts, even significant changes in sea ice volumes didn’t have a marked effect on Greenland ice sheets. In an experiment that assumed a 15 °C worldwide temperature increase, all sea ice disappeared, but the ice sheets remained relatively intact for centuries. This suggests that, while action is needed, there may still be time to save most of Greenland’s ice.
Accomplishing this goal, however, isn’t easy. One suggestion is spraying sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the stratosphere through a process known as stratospheric aerosol injection. Also called solar radiation modification or solar geoengineering, the plan is straightforward: Pack aircraft full of SO2, launch them into the stratosphere, release the payloads and then repeat the process each year for 15 years. Once the SO2 is in the atmosphere, it would reflect some of the sun’s heat back into space in much the same way as ash from large volcanic eruptions. Done right, this process could cut the impact of global warming in half. The caveat? It can’t reverse the damage that’s already been done.
Ice, Ice Maybe?
When it comes to the effect of global warming on Greenland, ongoing icemelt is a significant concern — rising sea levels could pose problems for coastal settlements, while long-frozen chemicals and viruses could cause worldwide harm.
While there may still be time to prevent the worst, it’s imperative that we take action now, even in the form of an SO2 stopgap, as we work on more permanent temperature management tactics.
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