This Hauntingly Beautiful Image Shows Greenland’s Massive Melt

A new satellite image captured over the southwestern part of Greenland shows the damage last week's heat wave did to the ice sheet.

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This image, acquired by one of the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites on Aug. 21, 2021, shows meltwaters flowing above the ice cap near Kangerlussuaq in southwest Greenland.
Image: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery

The image above is beautiful, but looks can be deceptive. It shows there’s way too much ice is melting in Greenland, and we should all be concerned.

The tranquil, surreal scene was captured by a European Space Agency satellite over the weekend. It shows meltwater swirling over the ice cap in the southwestern part of the country. But while everything looks calm, the image is a sign of a future that’s anything but.

The melting on the ice cap was triggered by an Arctic heat wave—the region’s second major one of the summer. It brought temperatures in some areas to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius) warmer than the seasonal average, and also caused raindrops to fall at the National Science Foundation’s Summit Station, a weather observatory roughly 2 miles (3 kilometers) above sea level, for the first time in recorded history.

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The ice melt extent peaked at 337,000 square miles (872,000 square kilometers) on Sunday, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That’s an area of about half of the ginormous sheet. That’s major, especially so late in the season. But this meltdown was actually slightly smaller than the big melt event that happened in late July, which spread across 340,000 square miles (880,595 square kilometers). Due to this year’s heat, the Greenland ice sheet reached its highest maximum daily melting rate recorded since 1950, losing seven times more ice than normal, according to an analysis by University of Liège climate scientists.

There’s only one other year when multiple melt events covered more than 309,000 square miles (800,306 square kilometers). That year is 2012 in case you ever have to answer a Jeopardy! clue about it. During that summer, winds lofted massive amounts of soot from wildfires in other parts of the Arctic to Greenland, which drove a meltdown across nearly the entire ice sheet surface. 

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A full size view of the satellite image at the top of the post without annotations.
The full size view of the satellite image.
Image: European Union, Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery

Though the meltwater left behind these events is painting beautiful pictures across the ice, the warming is a climate warning. The Arctic is heating up faster than any other location on Earth. Dark-colored meltwater absorbs more heat than ice or snow, so when water pools on the ice, it can create a feedback loop, spurring more ice to melt and widening the deep blue ponds. The blue melt ponds visible in the image are essentially dreamy pools of hot fudge that spell the ice sheet’s ruin. Rainwater can also quicken the melting, and the pockmarks the rain leaves behind can further destabilize the sheet. Soot has also shown up on the ice sheet with more alarming regularity, adding another means to melt. Even sunny skies are working against Greenland’s ice, and all these factors are leading to long-term damage.

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That’s driving sea level rise up. According to the recent United Nations climate report, seas are rising faster than at any point in the last 3,000 years, and ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets is the main reason why. So yes, meltwater ponds over ice caps are gorgeous, but the scenes they could create around the world are gruesome.