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Byron Shire
January 20, 2022

What Greenland’s record-breaking rain means for the planet

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View from Ravnefjeldet, next to Nanortalik, Greenland. Photo Jens Buurgaard Nielsen.

For three days in August, seven billion tonnes of rain fell across Greenland – the largest amount since records began in 1950. It’s also the first time since then that rain, not snow, fell on Greenland’s highest peak.

This is alarming. Greenland’s ice sheet is the second largest on the planet (after Antarctica) and any rain falling on its surface accelerates melting. By 15 August, the amount of ice lost was seven times greater than is normal for mid-August.

This is just the latest extreme climate event on the island, which sits in the North Atlantic Ocean. In a single day in July this year, the amount of ice that melted in Greenland would have covered the US state of Florida with five centimetres of water. And last October, research showed ice in Greenland is melting faster than at any other time in the past 12,000 years.

Melting ice in Greenland threatens to significantly hamper humanity’s efforts to mitigate climate change. That’s because, after a certain point, it may create catastrophic ‘feedback loops’.

Let’s look at the issue in more detail.

Rising temperatures in the Arctic

Greenland’s vast ice sheet comprises almost 1.7 million square kilometres of glacial land ice. It covers most of the territory and contains enough ice to raise sea levels by more than seven metres if all of it melted.

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets lost a combined 6.4 trillion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2017. Melting in Greenland has contributed to 60 per cent (17.8 millimetres) of the Earth’s overall sea-level rise owing to melting ice sheets, even though Greenland is much smaller than Antarctica.

This may be, in part, because half of Greenland’s melting is the result of rising air temperatures, which cause surface melting. In Antarctica, most ice loss is from ocean water melting glaciers that spill from land into the sea. And the rate of ice loss in both Greenland and Antarctica is accelerating – increasing sixfold since the 1990s.

Rain falling on ice exacerbates this process. So what’s behind the recent unprecedented weather?

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as quickly as the rest of the planet for a number of reasons, including; changes in cloud cover and water vapour, the reflectivity of the surface, and how weather systems transport energy from the tropics to the polar regions. This has made extreme weather events more common.

In recent years, in Greenland, rain has fallen further north, and more rain has fallen in winter. This is not normal for these regions, which usually get snow, not rain, in below-freezing temperatures.

This month’s rain is the result of warm, moist air flowing up from south-west of Greenland and remaining for several days. In the morning of 14 August, temperatures at the 3,216m summit of Greenland’s ice sheet surpassed freezing point, peaking at 0.48ºC. Rain fell on the summit for several hours that morning, and on 15 August.

This was particularly shocking given the above-freezing temperatures occurred so late in Greenland’s normally short summer. At this time of year, large areas of bare ice are exposed from a lack of snow, which leads to greater runoff of rainwater and meltwater into the oceans.

When melting is self-reinforcing

Rainfall makes the ice sheet more prone to surface melt since it exacerbates the so-called ‘ice-albedo positive feedback’. In other words, the melting reinforces itself; When rain falls, its warmth can melt snow, exposing the underlying darker ice, which absorbs more sunlight. This increases temperatures at the surface, leading to more melting.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only positive feedback loop destabilising the Greenland ice sheet.

The ‘positive melt-elevation feedback’ is another, where the lower height of the ice sheet leads to faster melting because higher temperatures occur at lower altitudes.

Also worrying is when higher temperatures cause coastal glaciers to thin, allowing more ice to slip into the sea. This both speeds up the rate of glacier flow towards the sea and lowers the ice surface, exposing it to warmer air temperatures and, in turn, increases melting.

What does this mean for the planet?

These positive feedbacks can lead to tipping points – abrupt and irreversible changes in the climate system after a certain threshold is reached. We are more likely to reach these tipping points as emissions increase and global temperatures rise.

While the science on tipping points is still emerging, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) said they cannot be ruled out. The report identified likely tipping points, such as widespread Arctic sea-ice melting, and the thawing of methane-rich permafrost.

Recent studies show what humanity may be up against. A study from May this year showed a substantial part of the Greenland ice sheet is either at, or about to reach, a tipping point where melting will accelerate, even if global warming is stopped. Scientists are concerned reaching this point may trigger a cascade effect, leading to other tipping points being reached.

Melted ice from both the Arctic Ocean and Greenland have caused an influx of freshwater into the North Atlantic Ocean. This has contributed to the slowing of a system of crucial ocean currents, which carry warm water from the tropics into the colder North Atlantic. This current, called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), has slowed by 15 per cent since the 1950s.

If the AMOC slows down any further, the consequences for the planet could be profound. It could destabilise the West African monsoon, cause more frequent drought in the Amazon rainforest and accelerate ice loss in Antarctica.

Existential threat

The rising likelihood of tipping points being reached beyond 1.5ºC of warming represents a potential, looming existential threat to human civilisation. However, even if we’ve already crossed some tipping points, as some scientists suggest, how fast the impacts unfold is still within our control.

If we limit global warming to 1.5ºCthis century, we give ourselves longer to adapt to heating already locked into the Earth’s system. But the window is rapidly closing; estimates indicate we may reach the crucial 1.5ºC threshold as soon as the mid-2030s.

The message for humanity is urgent: hard science, not cloying political spin, needs to dictate climate action in the coming years. As with COVID-19, listening to the scientists gives us the best hope of saving the planet.


This article has been reprinted from The Conversation (www.theconversation.com). Willow Hallgren has also previously written on climate change for The Echo Online ‘Planet Watch’ series (www.echo.net.au/category/articles/planet-watch).


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17 COMMENTS

  1. Maybe not in Africa or India, but everywhere you look in the industrialised world there is mass consumption of finite world resources and what’s worse is that much of it is single use or short term use. Everyone wants new products at low prices, few people care about the lifespan or quality of products and few even question the impact of their spending. Government’s print money like there is no tomorrow and spend, people earn more than ever and spend and big companies also spend huge amounts. All this leads to consumption and pollution and land fill and waste on a scale that is hard to comprehend and with that, global heating. It is not just environmentally friendly energy and systems we need but also a change in mindset that is probably beyond people in the industrialised countries. Until we start asking ourselves, do we need the new car, clothes, kitchen, sofa etc etc etc, little will change and while we may yet drive an electric car and reduce emissions that way, in many other ways the party goes on and the natural world we all profess to love, dies a little bit more.

    • Consumer culture is an additional layer to capitalism, which itself depends on the disenfranchisement of people and communities everywhere. Some of those people in every country have never stopped resisting this culture of exploitation, which now sees so many people perceiving their voice as tied to their purchasing power and consumer choices: organic groceries, electric vehicles etc.

      Material resources are finite at any given time, but life-giving energy is abundant in ecological systems. We have to be cautious of the depopulation rhetoric.

      The UN have found a way to prop up industrial modernity and appear to address environmental concerns by evicting indigenous people and peasants in new reserve systems (in mostly “developing” countries) which make up 30% of the planet’s land area, forcing more people into the pool of dispossessed labourers and by extension, the aspirational middle class.

      The climate crisis is not only a social justice issue- it’s enabled by fraudulent market ideology.

  2. Estimates indicate 1.5 of a degree of warming by 2030 ? Seriously i have checked the weather forecast BOM for the past 5 days
    and the forcast has changed everyday..!!

    • Barrow, Barrow, Barrow we been here before with your ‘troubles’ with the numbers and with the climate. Do I need to write it again, since 1910 Australia has warmed by 1.4 degrees plus or minus 0.24 degrees. That’s official from the BoM. But of course you decided not to bother yourself with that number. And as you already know there is a difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’ but Deniers always gladly continue to trip themselves up on that one.

  3. Absolute BS Joachim since records began temperatures have fluctuated by less than one degree, 0.6 of a degree to be precise .
    You can twist it all you like with your figures
    Joachim.. thats the problem with the left
    If it were not for double standards they would have no standards at all ..

    • Barrow my man, you can deny what you like to make global warming magically disappear from your head. But you can’t deny the Science / BoM old son. It there on the BoM website my man, ‘State of the Climate 2020′ Report’. I’ll do you a huge favour and quote the numbers direct from the BoM for you again old son…..”Australia’s climate has warmed on average 1.44 +or– 0.24degrees Celsius since national records began in 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events.”
      It not twisting figures, Barrow old son. It not my figures, Barrow old son. It not the the left figures, Barrow old son. It the BoM and The S C I E N C E , Barrow old son.

  4. Joachim, your perseverance is commendable, but seriously the fellow has got to be jerking your chain, surely nobody can be so gullably stupid for so long. Happy New Year All.

  5. Some people just need that little bit of extra ‘help’ at times. Our dear Barrow is one of those and as luck would have it for our dear Barrow, I’m more than happy to assist with the ‘help’ in his hour of need.

  6. Surely the nation can’t be that gullable as not to vote
    With the science during the last election
    Regarding climate change ?its at a tipping point right ? Catastrophic consequences
    Will follow if you choose not to vote in the
    Progressives !! obviously the voters were not as convinced as the good Dr that we have ten years before its to late .. how dare they
    Bla Bla bla .. !! Well keith & Joachim if the voters don’t vote in your greens with this emergency at our doorstep.. we will finally
    But this propaganda to bed …

  7. Barrow, Barrow, Barrow, as much as you like to DENY it, Science is not propaganda. The UN / IPCC delivered this year, the “Code Red for Humanity” report. Ignoring climate science, DENYING climate science, has consequences which is already on show for all to see. It seems the pain threshold for the comatose Aussie punters has still to be reached. Perhaps another Bushfire Apocalypse 2019-20 is required to awaken The Quiet Australians.

  8. You see Joachim the greens max out at 10%
    Of the vote have done for decades..
    Now you can lecture all on Climate change
    and be as dogmatic in the first order
    With your views Joachim … but the quite
    Ones are not convinced by any stretch of the imagination on this Climate change hysteria
    and that is the majority Joachim, majority
    Rules Ms captain planet.. not just a few noisy
    Miners chirping.. and incidentally i have asked on more than several occasions for just one example Of the Climate emergency declaration in the Byron Shire.. its at a tipping point and you or the good Dr or
    The Mayor or the Echo or anyone else from
    The greens can provide JUST ONE EXAMPLE.
    what a joke!!

  9. Hey Keith how forgetful
    Mate you are right accross goings on in
    The Ballina shire ? Are you not ?
    As is with my requests with all .
    Including Ballina shire Council
    They to along with Byron Shire
    Declared a climate emergency
    Which means in layman’s terms
    We are in imminent danger keith !!
    What sort of timeframes do we have
    Before we are doomed keith ?
    Any hints as what the residents
    May expect next ? Because thus
    Far everyone been sitting tight
    But nothing has happened for 2
    Years keith .. are we thinking a false
    Declaration ? Maybe you could ask
    The new Mayor.. ? Or your party leader
    Mr Brandt..

  10. Why should I or my Green’s mate Joachim answer any of your silly requests? We’re having such a great time watching you continually make a fool of yourself, You have not made a correct prediction on election outcomes EVER. If you want to find out anything regarding Byron’s or Ballina’s climate change policy’s, why not ask them yourself, or is that beyond your capabilities? Sorry I don’t have Sharon’s or Mr. Brandt’s number.

  11. That’s a bit rich Keith and hypocritical
    You are the one constantly making a fool of himself preaching this Climate change hysteria as a emergency.. yet when requested to provide some proof
    Of this Climate change emergency
    Your WORDS not mine keith
    You go to water .. full of it !!
    Now for the very last time keith
    I will ask you AGAIN
    You talk the talk Keith
    One example in your shire
    Regarding the Climate emergency?
    This should be so easy ?

    • Well thank God you asked for the very last time; but seriously, I’m not the official distributor of any information including anthropogenic climate change to the uninformed, if you haven’t managed to come to grips with the climate emergency by now that’s your problem, there’s nothing I can do to help, maybe Tim Flannery could help, he has a great website, I suppose you need help finding that.

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