Massive Northeast Greenland Glacier is Quickly Melting and Raising Sea Levels

First Posted: Nov 13, 2015 09:23 AM EST

A glacier in northeast Greenland is crumbling-and may just raise sea levels because of it. The glacier itself holds enough water to raise global sea levels by more than 18 inches, and has become unmoored from a stabilizing sill and is now losing mass at a rate of 5 billion tons per year.

The glaciers itself is called Zachariae Isstrom, and has been changing rapidly. Now, researchers are taking a closer look at exactly what these changes entail.

"North Greenland glaciers are changing rapidly," said Jeremie Mouginot, the lead author of the new study, in a news release. "The shape and dynamics of Zachariae Isstrom have changed dramatically over the last few years. The glacier is now breaking up and calving high volumes of icebergs into the ocean, which will result in rising sea levels for decades to come."

In this latest study, the researchers used data from aerial surveys and satellite-based observations acquired by multiple international space agencies. They monitored and recoded changes in the shape, size and position of glacial ice over long periods.

"Zachariae Isstrom is being hit from above and below," said Eric Rignot, the senior author of the study. "The top of the glacier is melting away as a result of decades of steadily increasing air temperatures, while its underside is compromised by currents carrying warmer ocean water, and the glacier is now breaking away into bits and pieces and retreating into deeper ground."

Zachariae Isstrom also neighbors another large glacier, called Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden, which is also melting rapidly. However, this glacier is melting at a slightly slower rate since it's protected by an inland hill. In all, the two glaciers make up 12 percent of the Greenland ice sheet. If they were to collapse completely, they would boost sea levels by more than 39 inches.

"Not long ago, we wondered about the effect on sea levels if Earth's major glaciers were to start retreating," said Rignot. "We no longer need to wonder; for a couple of decades now, we've been able to directly observe the results of climate warming on polar regions. The changes are staggering and are now affecting the four corners of Greenland."

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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