“It looks like the peak will be today. But the long-term forecast is for continuing warm and sunny weather in Greenland, so that means the amount of the ice loss will continue,” she said on Thursday.
The scope of Wednesday’s ice melt is a number difficult to grasp. To understand just how much ice is being lost, a mere 1 billion tonnes – or 1 gigaton – of ice loss is equivalent to about 400,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, the Danish Meteorological Institute said. And 100 billion tonnes corresponds to a 0.28mm rise in global sea levels.
Mottram said that since June 1 – roughly the start of the ice-loss season – the Greenland ice sheet had lost 240 gigatonnes (240 billion metric tonnes) this year. That compares with 290 gigatonnes lost overall in the 2012 melting season, which usually goes until the end of August.
A study by scientists in the US and Denmark in June said melting ice in Greenland alone would add between five and 33 centimetres to rising global sea levels by the year 2100. If all the ice in Greenland melted – which would take centuries – the world’s oceans would rise by 7.2 metres, the study found.
The current melting has been brought on by the arrival of the same warm air from North Africa and Spain that hit European cities and towns last week, setting national temperature records in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Britain.
In Russia, forest fires caused by hot, dry weather and spread by high winds are raging over nearly 30,000 square kilometres of territory in Siberia and the Russian Far East – an area the size of Belgium.
The smoke from these fires, some of them in Arctic territory, is so heavy it can easily be seen in satellite photos and is causing air quality problems in towns and some cities, including Russia’s third-largest city, Novosibirsk. Residents want the Russian government to do more to fight the blazes.
Greenland has also been battling a slew of Arctic wildfires, something that Mottram said was uncommon in the past.
In Greenland, the melt area this year is the second-biggest in terms of ice area affected, behind more than 90 per cent in 2012, said Mark Serreze, director of the Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, which monitors ice sheets globally. Records go back to 1981.
A lot of what melts can later refreeze onto the ice sheet, but because of the conditions ahead of this summer’s heatwave, the amount of ice lost for good this year might be the same as in 2012 or more, scientists said. They noted a long build-up to this summer’s ice melt – including higher overall temperatures for months – and a very dry winter with little snow in many places, which would normally offer some protection to glacier ice.
“This is certainly a weather event superimposed on this overall trend of warmer conditions” that have increasingly melted Greenland ice over the long term, Serreze said.
Compounding the melting, the Greenland ice sheet started out behind this year because of the low ice and snow accumulation, Snow and Ice Data Centre scientist Twila Moon said.
With man-made climate change, “there’s a potential for these kind of rates to become more common 50 years from now”, Moon said.
Heatwaves have always occurred, but Mike Sparrow, a spokesman for the UN World Meteorological Organisation, noted that, as global temperatures have risen, extreme heatwaves are now occurring at least 10 times more frequently than a century ago. This year, the world had its hottest month of June ever.
“These kind of heatwaves are weather events and can occur naturally but studies have shown that both the frequency and intensity of these heatwaves have increased due to global warming,” Sparrow said in a telephone interview from Geneva.
He noted that sea ice spread in the Arctic and Antarctic are both at record lows.
“When people talk about the average global temperature increasing by a little more than 1 degree [Celsius], that’s not a huge amount to notice if you’re sitting in Hamburg or London, but that’s a global average and it’s much greater in the polar regions,” he said.
Even though temperatures will be going down in Greenland by the end of this week, the ice melt is not likely to stop anytime soon, Mottram said.
“Over the last couple of days, you could see the warm wave passing over Greenland,” she said. “That peak of warm air has passed over the summit of the ice sheet, but the clear skies are almost as important, or maybe even more important, for the total melt of the ice sheet.”
She added that clear skies were likely to continue in Greenland “so we can still get a lot of ice melt even if the temperature is not spectacularly high”.
Science writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Southern Pines, North Carolina.