Shockwaves from melting icecaps are triggering earthquakes, say scientists

A A A

High up inside the Arctic circle the melting of Greenland's ice sheet has accelerated so dramatically that it is triggering earthquakes for the first time.

Scientists monitoring the glaciers have revealed that movements of gigantic pieces of ice are creating shockwaves that register up to three on the Richter scale.

The speed of the arctic ice melt has accelerated to such an extent that a UN report issued earlier this year is now thought to be out of date by its own authors.

The American polar expert Robert Correll, among the key contributors to the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report issued in February, described the acceleration as "massive".

Estimates of the likely rise in sea levels this century vary, and the IPCC published a conservative range of between 20cm-60cm. But those estimates are now heavily disputed, with many scientists insisting that new data collected since the IPCC report suggested a rise closer to two metres. Professor Correll said there was now a "consensus" that a significant acceleration in the loss of ice mass has occurred since the last report.

The revelations came at a conference in the north of Greenland, which has drawn world religious leaders, scientists and environmentalists to the Ilulissat Icefjord. Ilulissat is home to the most active glacier in Greenland and it was one of the immense icebergs that calve from it on a daily basis that is believed to have sunk the Titanic. The Arctic is acknowledged as the fastest warming place on earth.

The local Inuit population, whose lives have been drastically altered by the changing climate, were yesterday led in a silent prayer for the future of the planet by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the organiser of the arctic symposium and spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Orthodox Christians.

Greenland's ice cap is immense, the second largest in the world, and its break-up would be catastrophic. The packed ice is up to two miles thick and its total collapse into the ocean would raise worldside sea levels by seven metres.

At the Ilulissat Icefjord, 250km north of the Arctic Circle, the advance of the glacier into the sea is now visible to the naked eye. "It's moving toward the sea at a rate of two metres an hour," said Professor Correll. "It's exuding like toothpaste, moving towards us at 15 kilometres per year."

One day's worth of the Ilulissat ice would provide enough fresh water to supply the largest cities in the world for a whole year – and yet it amounts to only 7 per cent of Greenland's total melt.

As the glaciers thaw, pools of water are forming, feeding fractures in the ice, down which the water flows until it hits the bedrock.

"These so-called moulins are phenomenal," said Professor Correll, who said they had been remarkably scarce when he first visited the glacier in 1968. "Now they are like rivers 10 or 15 metres in diameter and there are thousands of them."

He compared the process to putting oil underneath the ice to make it move forward faster.

As the reality of the unprecedented thaw becomes apparent, the consequences are outstripping the capacity of scientific models to predict it.

Earthquakes, or glacial ice quakes, in the north-west of Greenland are among the latest ominous signs that an unprecedented step change is under way. The Finnish scientist Veli Albert Kallio is one of the region's leading ice experts and has been tracking the earthquakes.

"Glacial earthquakes in north-west Greenland did not exist until three years ago," he said.

The accelerating thaw and the earthquakes are intimately connected, according to Mr Kallio, as immense slabs of ice are sheared from the bed rock by melt water. Those blocks of ice, often more than 800m deep and 1500m long, contain immense rocks as well and move against geological faults with seismic consequences. The study of these ice quakes is still in its infancy, according to Professor Correll, but their occurence is in itself disturbing. "It is becoming a lot more volatile," said Mr Vallio. Predictions made by the Arctic Council, a working group of regional scientists, have been hopelessly overrun by the extent of the thaw. "Five years ago we made models predicting how much ice would melt and when," said Mr Vallio. "Five years later we are already at the levels predicted for 2040, in a year's time we'll be at 2050."

This dramatic warming is being felt across the Arctic region. In Alaska, earthquakes are rocking the seabed as tectonic plates – subdued for centuries by the weight of the glaciers on top of them – are now moving against each other again.

In the north of Sweden, mean temperatures have risen above zero for the first time on record.

Professor Terry Callaghan has been working in the remote north of the country at a research station which has been taking continuous readings for the past 100 years. His recent findings tally with the accelerating pace of change elsewhere.

"Mean temperatures have remained below zero here since medieval times," said Professor Callaghan. "Now, over the past 10 years we have exceeded zero, the mark at which ice turns to water." Professor Correll said: "We are looking at a very different planet than the one we are used to."

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
fashion
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

English Teacher- Manchester

£19200 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you a ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes