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The Story of A Melting Greenland

If this were a movie, the incident might be called Four Days in July. The plot: A scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California is analyzing satellite data when he notices that most of the ice sheet that covers Greenland appears to be melting.

Is it true, he wonders? Is it just a mistake? He consults with another scientist in Maryland, who checks data from another set of satellites. She sees the same thing. They consult a climatologist in Georgia and another scientist in New York. They all agree. Not only is it true, within four days, 97% of the surface of the ice sheet shows thawing.

Credit: Imagix / Shutterstock

At this point, the movie would careen off into conspiracies of mining companies and countries secretly seeking to exploit rare elements believed hidden beneath the ice, and, of coure, there would be some unlikely hero who steps in to save the day.

No Secrets Here

In this case, the goal of mining the potential rare earth elements in Greenland’s Earth crust is no secret. Greenland officials say they are open to the idea, and are being courted by European Union leaders who are hoping to find a new source for the materials, which can be used in the manufacturing of everything from DVDs, to vehicles, to computers and high-tech communications equipment.

Even the environmentalist group Greenpeace says the mining could prove beneficial —  if it’s done with safeguards to protect the island’s almost pristine Arctic wastelands.

What Lies Beneath

The hope is that Greenland can offer the world a new accessible resource for the 17 so-called rare earth elements needed for many high-tech industries. (While referred to as “rare,” the elements are plentiful in much of the Earth’s crust, but not necessarily “concentrated in exploitable ore deposits,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey.)

For the last decade or so, China has provided 90% of the market — and many are starting to express concerns about future supply.

The Big Melt

While negotiations have been going on for a while, the massive ice melt is relatively new. Just as parts of the icy Northwest Passage melt every summer, the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet will experience some melting as well —  from the thin layer along the low-lying edges of the coast, to the center of the sheet that is more than 3 kilometers (2 miles) thick. Where exactly does it go? The melted ice either refreezes on the thicker surfaces, or flows into the ocean.

The key word here is surface — the whole ice sheet is not melting. This is good considering that the ice sheet covers more than four-fifths of the island, which is 2.166 million square kilometres. If it all melted, that would be a whole lot of water going into the ocean. (And that movie might be called “Waterworld.” Wait…. )

Eye Spy Thaw

NASA’s Son Nghiem was the first to notice the massive ice melt on July 12 as he analyzed data from the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Oceansat-2 satellite. Here’s how it happened:

  • On July 8, measurements from three satellites showed thawing of about 40% of the ice sheet, at or near the surface. About the same time, an unusually strong ridge of warm air (what NASA called a ‘heat dome’) moved over Greenland and “parked itself”.
  • Then, on July 12, an estimated 97% of the surface showed some level of thawing.

So, Should We Be Worried?

Such pronounced melting had not been seen in Greenland in 123 years, since 1889. Ice core samples taken from the summit, or the thickest part of the ice sheet, have shown that such “melting events” occur about once every 150 years, according to NASA glaciologist Lora Koenig.

This event then, “is right on time,” Koenig said, according to NASA’s announcement. “But if we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome.”

AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.

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