An ice island four times the size of Manhattan separated from Petermann Glacier, Greenland last year. Today one of these Manhattans reached the coast of Newfoundland. Never before has as large a piece of ice from Greenland reached this far south. Does this show a warming climate taping into Greenland’s 20 feet potential to raise global sea level?
Greenland’s glaciers always melt with pieces breaking off. This raises sea level if Greenland receives less snow atop than it loses ice at the bottom. For the last 10 years Greenland lost about 200 trillion pounds of mass, net, per year. [At 5 cents per pound, this pays off the federal debt within a year.] Distributing this mass over all oceans, we raise global sea level by one inch in 75 years. Nothing to worry about, but there is a twist: Weight watching satellites show that Greenland becomes thinner, while the Tropic grow fatter. Records of weight gain and loss are too short to draw firm conclusions, yet, but they are consistent across the globe and the trends of gain and loss are increasing, too.
We do not understand the physics, stability, and uncertainty of these increasing gains and losses well enough to make reliable predictions. If the climate over Greenland is stable, as it has been for the last 10,000 years, then this matters little. If the present equilibrium reaches a tipping point, where a small change will kick us into different stable state, then we can expect sea level to increase 10 times or more. We understand tipping points in theory, but not in practice. In practical terms, we do not know if our children must deal with two inches of sea level from Greenland by the end of this century or 80 inches or none at all. We know only too well, however, that low-lying places like Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and New Orléans struggle with the sea level we have now.
Greenland’s ice island off Newfoundland indicates a globally connected world. Burning stuff over Europe, America, and increasingly Asia creates heat that melts Greenland at a rate that is increasing. What happens in Greenland does not stay in Greenland, but it impacts Rome, Miami, and Shanghai. More ice and rising sea level will come. To play it safe, let’s think smartly what and how we burn. To play it loose and reckless: burn, baby, burn … or was it drill?