The big thaw

Global disaster will follow if the ice cap on Greenland melts. Now scientists say it is vanishing far faster than even they expected. Geoffrey Lean reports

A A A

Greenland's glaciers have begun to race towards the ocean, leading scientists to predict that the vast island's ice cap is approaching irreversible meltdown,
The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Research to be published in a few days' time shows how glaciers that have been stable for centuries have started to shrink dramatically as temperatures in the Arctic have soared with global warming. On top of this, record amounts of the ice cap's surface turned to water this summer.

The two developments - the most alarming manifestations of climate change to date - suggest that the ice cap is melting far more rapidly than scientists had thought, with immense consequences for civilisation and the planet. Its complete disappearance would raise the levels of the world's seas by 20 feet, spelling inundation for London and other coastal cities around the globe, along with much of low-lying countries such as Bangladesh.

More immediately, the vast amount of fresh water discharged into the ocean as the ice melts threatens to shut down the Gulf Stream, which protects Britain and the rest of northern Europe from a freezing climate like that of Labrador.

The revelations, which follow the announcement that the melting of sea ice in the Arctic also reached record levels this summer, come as the world's governments are about to embark on new negotiations about how to combat global warming.

This week they will meet in Montreal for the first formal talks on whether there should be a new international treaty on cutting the pollution that causes climate change after the Kyoto protocol expires in seven years' time. Writing in The Independent yesterday, Tony Blair called the meeting "crucial", adding that it "must start to shape an inclusive global solution". But little progress is expected, largely because of continued obstruction from President George Bush.

The new evidence from Greenland, to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, shows a sudden decline in the giant Helheim glacier, a river of ice that grinds down from the inland ice cap to the sea through a narrow rift in the mountain range on the island's east coast.

Professor Slawek Tulaczyk, of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told the IoS that the glacier had dropped 100 feet this summer.

Over the past four years, the research adds, the front of the glacier - which has remained in the same place since records began - has retreated four and a half miles. As it has retreated and thinned, the effects have spread inland "very fast indeed", says Professor Tulaczyk. As the centre of the Greenland ice cap is only 150 miles away, the researchers fear that it, too, will soon be affected.

The research echoes disturbing studies on the opposite side of Greenland: the giant Jakobshavn glacier - at four miles wide and 1,000 feet thick the biggest on the landmass - is now moving towards the sea at a rate of 113 feet a year; the normal annual speed of a glacier is just one foot.

The studies have found that water from melted ice on the surface is percolating down through holes on the glacier until it forms a layer between it and the rock below, slightly lifting it and moving it toward the sea as if on a conveyor belt. This one glacier alone is reckoned now to be responsible for 3 per cent of the annual rise of sea levels worldwide.

"We may be very close to the threshold where the Greenland ice cap will melt irreversibly," says Tavi Murray, professor of glaciology at the University of Wales. Professor Tulaczyk adds: "The observations that we are seeing now point in that direction."

Until now, scientists believed the ice cap would take 1,000 years to melt entirely, but Ian Howat, who is working with Professor Tulaczyk, says the new developments could "easily" cut this time "in half".

There is also a more immediate danger as the melting ice threatens to disrupt the Gulf Stream, responsible for Britain's mild climate. The current, which brings us as much heat in winter as we get from the sun, is driven by very salty water sinking off Greenland. This drives a deep current of cold ocean southwards, in turn forcing the warm water north.

Research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts has shown, that even before the glaciers started accelerating, the water in the North Atlantic was getting fresher in what it describes as "the largest and most dramatic oceanic change ever measured in the era of modern instruments".

Even before these discoveries, scientists had shortened to evens the odds on the Gulf Stream failing this century. When it failed before, 12,700 years ago, Britain was covered in permafrost for 1,300 years.

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower