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.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup