Satellites reveal rare levels of Greenland ice melt
Satellite data show Greenland surface melt on July 8, left, and July 12. "Melt" is dark pink; "probable melt" is light pink.
July 25th, 2012
12:40 PM ET

Satellites reveal rare levels of Greenland ice melt

Nearly all of Greenland’s ice cover at least temporarily melted at the surface during an unusually warm stretch in mid-July - a level of melting not seen there in 123 years, NASA said.

In an average summer, melting happens on about half of the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet, which covers most of the land and is an average 1 mile thick.

But an unusually strong ridge of relatively warm air - hovering just above freezing for several hours at the highest elevation - rapidly accelerated melting this month, and satellites showed that an estimated 97% of the surface had melted at some point by July 12, NASA said.

While some of that melt water freezes in place, some of it is lost to rivers and the ocean – and mid-July’s melting caused river flooding that threatened a number of bridges, said Tom Wagner, NASA’s cryosphere program manager in Washington. (The flooding has been captured on a number of YouTube videos, including this one.)

Where this falls in the larger context of Greenland’s changing ice cap - scientists say it is shrinking and causing ocean levels to rise, with warming ocean waters causing ice on the periphery to be lost through melting and rapid flow - is a complicated question, NASA says.

Ice core samples show that the surface melting seen this July happens once in about every 150 years, and the last such melt happened in 1889, NASA said.

“It could be that this melt event is caused by normal variations that just happen once in a while,” Wagner said by phone Tuesday.

So, Wagner said, one can’t attribute July’s melting to global warming, but the melting must be digested with this in mind: that "warming is causing the loss of ice all over Greenland, and the Greenland ice sheet is shrinking."

Wagner said Greenland has lost 150 gigatons of ice per year over the last 20 years, and its shrinking cap contributes up to half a millimeter a year to global sea-level rise. Researchers haven’t determined how much of mid-July’s melt refroze or went into the ocean, NASA said.

The July 8-12 melting happened days before an island of ice twice the size of Manhattan broke off from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier on July 16. But with glacier calving attributed to ocean temperature, not the more quickly fluctuating air temperature, no one is linking the calving to July’s melting of surface ice, Wagner said.

July’s melting "combined with other natural but uncommon phenomena, such as the large calving event last week on Petermann Glacier, are part of a complex story,” Wagner said in a news release. “Satellite observations are helping us understand how events like these may relate to one another as well as to the broader climate system.”

July’s melting was detected by three satellites - the Indian Space Research Organization’s Oceansat-2, and NASA’s Terra and Aqua.

July 18, 2012: Massive ice island breaks off Greenland glacier

May 4, 2012: Greenland ice melt could raise seas less than feared, study says

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Filed under: Greenland • Science • Weather
soundoff (263 Responses)
  1. snakebite201

    When Eric the Red landed in Greenland in the 12th century, it was a lush fertile land which gave it its name. This could be just a natural cycle or did the Vikings do something to the environment the changed it to an ice covered tundra! I tend to think it is a nautural cycle.

    July 25, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • gsjr03

      Agreed This sentence right here sums it up.
      "Ice core samples show that the surface melting seen this July happens once in about every 150 years, and the last such melt happened in 1889, NASA said."
      I understand some Global Warming fears, but a lot of it is just the Earth's Natural Cycle how God intended.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gimcy

      I visited the valley where E the R and Co. built a small enclave in 1998. It was (still) a very lush, green area, so I can see why he named it Greenland. It was near the southern tip of Greenland and it is not nearly as "icy" there as it is farther north.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • David

      No it wasn't. It was named Greenland as a misnomer in order to get people to settle on basically a giant block of ice.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Arrakis

      No, snakebite. He named it 'Greenland' in hopes of luring other people to settle there. It wasn't green and lush.

      July 25, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wo0F


      those same ice core samples blow the lid off of your God and the 6 thousand year old earth. But then again every time facts surface you guys just reinvent your dogma.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • halfrican23

      Greenland has never been a lush fertile land. Eric the Red named it Greenland to trick people into settling there. Iceland is more lush and fertile than Greenland by leaps and bounds

      July 25, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eli

      The coastal and southern regions are always green this time of year. It is the central and high elevation areas that never melt, hence the whole point of the article.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. gmenfan54

    Don't laugh the next time you watch the movie "Waterworld".

    July 25, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rick

    in the words of the late George Carlin: "The planet is fine. The people are f–ked"

    July 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. newfrontier

    Finally. Now we can populate the area and bring civilization to a previously useless land mass.

    July 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Whome

    Do they call this Greenland because it has always been covered with ice or because it was once vegetated? Do we want to talk about Iceland?

    July 25, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |

    Admit it NASA...we just need to kill off a few more cows. Their methane is dooming us all!

    July 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bladerunner

    Can someone with a science background or data answer this question for me: We've been pumping tons of pollutants into the atmosphere for a long time yet the average barometric pressure is still the same (isn't it?) and the gas composition has not changed appreciably (or has it?) so something has to be escaping into space or being absorbed by something. Where is it all going, what gases are being replaced?

    July 25, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tundrayeti


      The first and most important answer is that the difference in the amount of gasses is trivial. Yes we are burning fossil fuels to produce CO2 at a rate of ~30 billion tons/year... but that's only ~4 ppm, or 0.0004% of the atmosphere... then ~2 ppm gets re-absorbed into the ocean and other carbon sinks, for a total CO2 increase of ~0.0002%/year.

      But CO2 doesn't mean we are pumping new gas into the atmosphere, we're combining the gas that is there with other elements to create new gasses.

      CH4 + 2O2 –> CO2 + 2H2O

      Here we have methane being burned to produce water and CO2... the CO2 is a gas, and the water is a liquid. The water can condense out into liquid, which means that for every mole of CH4 pumped up and burned, we lose a mole 2 moles of O2 and get one mole of CO2. We're actually losing some moles of gas... but CO2 is slightly heavier than O2, and the increased temperature results in increased concentrations of water... etc... and so the relationship is non-linear.

      July 25, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  8. HeeHaw

    Can we see the satelitte photo imagery from 100 years ago? Man, that would be awesome.

    July 25, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hope


      There is no satellite image...


      Imagine that!

      July 25, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. birdfish





    July 25, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Connie Lyngus

    Do the greenish people live there.

    July 25, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. guest

    actually Greenland is much icier and snowier than Iceland yet it is called Greenland. Greenland was not named Greenland because it was a green country but was rather named Greenland to try to attract new settlers to the harsh region.

    July 25, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Hope

    Today is today...

    We need to protect our environment, our animals and our people. People are dying everywhere, not by God's hands, but by ours. Our natural resources have been stripped from our core and our planet is all dried up. God WILL bring an end to those ruining the earth. He's here, there, shining a light for all to see. But, many of us never will. All things are possible... through Him.

    That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it!

    July 25, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ROGER

    Interesting how religious people seem to deny the possibilty of man made global warming. Why is that?

    July 25, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hope

      Funny... I'm a religious person and there is no doubt in my mind that the earth is warming, in fact; we've discussed that very thing. So, who, exactly, are you referring to, Roger?

      July 25, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jay

    When you sum greenhouse gases, don't forget to add deforestation coupled with the concrete sprawl. Trapping and reserving therms has a effect that is actually unnatural and a lot broader than some of the lesser minds realize.Deer in the headlight moments all around.

    July 25, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hope

      I know...


      July 25, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dan

    With the lost mass of ice sitting on the areas typically covered by glaciers, it changes the shape of the earth (it rebounds). Get ready for a big super volcano to go off now that there's less weight holding it down.... Then the glaciers will return during the nuclear winter. Of course, that's after Vanuatu ceases to exist.

    July 25, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
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