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the arctic ice melt has accelerated to such an extent that a UN report issued earlier this year is now thought to be out of date by its own authors.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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Sport
Bradford City's reward for their memorable win over Chelsea is a trip to face either Sunderland or Fulham (Getty)
football
News
Lars Andersen took up archery in his mid thirties
video
Voices
Focus E15 Mothers led a protest to highlight the lack of affordable housing in London
voicesLondon’s housing crisis amounts to an abuse of human rights, says Grace Dent
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea