Greenland's Ice Sheet 'More Resilient Than We Thought'

Research says it may repair if we surpass climate goals, but only if things cool down fast
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 22, 2023 10:40 AM CDT
Greenland's Ice Sheet May Be Able to Rebound
A group from the Poseidon Expeditions looks over an iceberg in the Scoresby Sund in Greenland.   (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

There's hope for Greenland's rapidly melting ice sheet. New research published in Nature says that even if global temperatures rise past Paris Agreement goals, the ice sheet has a chance to rebound under certain conditions. NPR untangles the findings, noting that the 2-mile thick, densely packed sheet has at times dwindled drastically at points in history, but went on to repair fully. "The Greenland ice sheet is more resilient than we thought," the paper's lead author Nils Bochow says. That resiliency depends on how much global temperatures rise, and what happens after. Nature reports that record 2023 temperatures are inching quickly toward the Paris climate goal of not surpassing 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial times.

But even if temperatures rise above those global goals over the century, there's a chance the ice shelf will repair if conditions cool down rapidly 100 to 200 years after. "If we reduce temperatures within a certain time, we can prevent this abrupt loss," Bochow says. How many degrees, and in what timeframe, are still big questions we don't have the answer to. The ice sheet's melting rate today is reliant on past conditions—what's thawing today was caused by temperatures that occurred in the past. If temperatures eventually cooled down to about the targets of the Paris Agreement, the ice sheet could rebound like it has over time. But that's a big "if."

"It's a bet against time if we don't do anything now," Bochow tells Nature. "It gets only harder the longer we wait." While the ice sheet's future has a chance, there will still be devastating consequences elsewhere as it melts. Here in the US, the Washington Post previously reported that "destructive" floods along the coasts are five times more likely if sea levels rose by about a foot by 2050. Thawing in Greenland already accounts for 20% of water that's raising sea levels, and if it all melted, sea levels would increase by 20 feet. "What are humans going to do?" glacier expert Ginny Catania asks. "That's the bigger player in how the climate is going to change in the future." (Beware "zombie ice.")

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