It Rained at the Summit of Greenland’s Ice Sheet for the First Time Ever Recorded

The rain triggered widespread ice melt—a warning sign for what the climate crisis may have in store.

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Ice recedes from a glacier near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland.
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP (Getty Images)

Last week, the Greenland ice sheet underwent a major melting event—its second in two weeks. This time around, the melting was quickened by a wholly unexpected and unwelcome visitor: rain.

Seven billion tons of rain fell on the country last week, and for the first time in recorded history, it rained at the Greenland Summit Camp, a research station near the normally frigid top of the ice sheet. Saturday was also only the third time this decade that temperatures ever rose above freezing at Greenland’s summit, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The big melting event took place across two days last weekend. These large-scale melts can do serious damage to the ice sheet even if they only last a few days. The darker water can absorb the sun’s energy and cause the surrounding ice to melt faster, destabilizing the snow and firn below the surface. The blitz of water can screw up ice sheet dynamics in the longer term as well.

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“During melt events, these processes can occur over parts of the ice sheet that do not typically experience melt, making the impact more widespread,” Lauren Andrews, a glaciologist with NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office, said in a statement to NASA’s Earth Observatory. “Positive feedbacks like these are starting to take their toll.”

The weekend of rain adds yet another wrinkle to the mix. In addition to melting ice, it also creates issues for when it inevitably refreezes. Ice made by the compression of snow and firn is generally pretty white and reflective. Ice by way of rain is relatively smooth and dark, though, which means it will absorb more of the sun’s rays and be more prone to melting.

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Before and after satellite images showing the impact of rain on the Greenland ice sheet. The cloud-free image was acquired on Aug. 12, 2021 while the rainy one was acquired on Aug. 15, 2021.
Gif: Gizmodo (NASA Earth Observatory)

On Saturday, the extent of ice affected by melting peaked at 337,000 square miles (872,000 square kilometers), roughly half of the massive ice sheet. About two-thirds of the ice sheet melted in late July, and this marks only the second year on record the ice sheet has seen more than one melt event of more than 309,000 square miles (800,000 square kilometers). What’s more, no melt event of that extent has ever been seen as late in the year as the one that just hit the ice sheet.

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This summer is a warning sign of the horrors the climate crisis has in store. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. Studies show that rain is becoming far more common, and that trend will continue as the climate crisis becomes more severe. A 2020 report found that some Arctic regions will begin seeing rain instead of snow in any month of the year, even during the traditionally frigid winter.

Figure 1a. The top maps show daily melt extent for the Greenland Ice Sheet for August 14, 15, and 16, 2021. The lower left map shows cumulative melt days for 2021 through Aug 16. The lower right graph shows daily melt extent during mid-summer for all years in the satellite record with a maximum melt extent greater than 800,000 square kilometers (309,000 square miles). The graph areas depict the daily melt area for the 1981 to 2010 average, the interquartile range, and the interdecile range. All melt events observed by the NSIDC satellite record are circled in cyan; the rain (red circle) and melt event of 2021 is the only event of this type in the 43-year record.
Daily ice melt extent at the Greenland Ice Sheet during last week’s melt event.
Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center/T. Mote, University of Georgia
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The Greenland ice sheet meltdown is only one impact. These shifts have also taken a massive toll on the region’s Indigenous populations and ecosystems, and they’re dangerous for those of us living far from the Arctic, too. Last week’s major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report showed that melt from Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets is causing seas to rise faster than at any point in the last 3,000 years.

A 2019 study found that if the world keeps emitting greenhouse gases at an increasing rate, ice melt from Greenland alone could cause sea levels to rise between up to a foot (.3 meters) by the end of the century, overwhelming coastal communities around the world. It would also eventually lead all of the ice sheet to disappear, albeit by the year 3000. That would raise sea levels 23 feet (7 meters). The only way to ward off that fate is to rapidly, urgently kick fossil fuels to the curb and draw down greenhouse gas emissions. If we don’t, rain at the Greenland Summit Camp could become common—and could be the least of our problems.