This Satellite Image Shows Everything Wrong With Greenland Right Now

Illustration for article titled This Satellite Image Shows Everything Wrong With Greenland Right Now
Photo: Getty

If you could sum up climate change’s impact on the Arctic in one image, you’d be hard pressed to find something better than this satellite view, which shows the meltdown of one of the largest stores of ice on Earth while a wildfire rages in the distance.


Here it is, below, courtesy of satellite image wizard Pierre Markuse and our planet, which is quickly becoming a smoke-filled, waterlogged hellscape.

Illustration for article titled This Satellite Image Shows Everything Wrong With Greenland Right Now
Image: Pierre Markuse (Flickr)

Greenland’s past few years of wildfires are one of those weird and ominous impacts of climate change. While the one currently burning is nowhere near as big as the ones in other parts of the Arctic from Siberia to Alaska, they’re clearly not good since, there is basically no recorded history of fires in Greenland. Satellite carbon dioxide emissions data—which goes back 17 years—shows this is easily the highest-emitting year ever recorded. The current blaze, visible in the lower left of the picture, is smoldering through carbon-rich peat.

But if the fire is ominous, what’s happening to Greenland’s ice is truly terrifying. A heat wave has essentially acted like a blow torch on the ice sheet’s surface, causing a widespread melt. The ponds visible in the satellite image are indicative of a much broader meltdown. An estimated 56 percent of the ice sheet surface went into meltdown on Thursday, sending 10 billion gallons of water into the ocean.

A portion of the Greenland ice sheet with four images blended from July 15-30. The white snow melts exposing blue ice underneath.
Gif: Planet Labs, Inc.

That’s more than 15,100 Olympic swimming pools, and 12 billion gallons could runoff into the ocean today. The snowmelt at the margins of the ice sheet is clearly visible in satellite imagery as well, underscoring just how widespread the melt event is. Video has revealed water rushing off the ice sheet in raging torrents choked with sediment.


While parts of the ice sheet are likely to firm up in the coming days, the damage will be done. The ice sheet has been shedding ice six times faster than just 40 years ago, which is a very worrying trend for a couple of reasons. The extra runoff has messed with ocean circulation as cold, freshwater piles up in the North Atlantic. All the extra water also contributes to sea level rise as well. If the whole ice sheet were to melt, it would raise sea levels up to 20 feet higher. That’s not imminent, but even this week’s melt event will be enough to cause measurable sea level rise. And that serves as a reminder that what happens in Greenland doesn’t stay there.

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.


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I know we’re talking about land ice and not sea ice in the Arctic, but the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has recently upgraded its data presentation and analysis tools. Pretty cool stuff.

We’re on a ice extent record minimum watch this year. The minimalist minimum Arctic Ice sheet extent was 2012.

For shits and giggles I plotted the following: decade averages (‘79 to ‘90, ‘91 to ‘00, etc), the 2012 ice year and this year up to Aug 1st (last recording). There ain’t no randomness no more.

Climate scientists (aka folks who know their shit about this stuff) typically include the 30 year average with standard deviation range. You can put that back and plot your own damn graph.