Greenland’s coastal glaciers are melting twice as rapidly as they were two decades ago, according to a study warning the glaciers have entered a new phase of rapid retreat.
While Greenland’s sprawling ice sheet has been the subject of much research, for the new study scientists sought to study the impact of warming on the hundreds of glaciers dotting Greenland’s coastline. Researchers analyzed satellite imagery and historical photos, tracking changes in more than 1,000 glaciers over more than a century. Many of the historical photos came from a collection that had, until a few years ago, been gathering dust in a castle near Copenhagen.
“Starting in the 1930s, Danish pilots clad in polar bear-fur suits set out on aerial mapping campaigns of Greenland and ended up collecting over 200,000 photos of the island’s coastline,” said Laura Larocca, a NOAA climate scientist and lead author of the study. “A project like this takes a lot of people and a lot of manual labor to scan and digitize all these analog air photos.”
The images revealed the staggering impact of rising temperatures, showing that melting has gained pace across Greenland. In just the last 20 years, northern glaciers have lost as much as 10 percent of their length, while southern glaciers have lost 18 percent. The findings were published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Pound for pound, Greenland’s glaciers contribute more to sea level rise than its massive ice sheet, authors noted. “Our activities over the next couple decades will greatly affect these glaciers,” Larocca said. “Every bit of temperature increase really matters.”
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