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Will Greenland be really ‘Green’ after losing its ice mass?

-By Xander Wang, Pelin Kinay, Aminur Shah, and Quan Dau-

Many people believe that, due to global warming, a longstanding myth about Greenland might be the reality – a ‘green’ land, resembling its name – ‘Green’, instead of the snowwhite ice-covered land that exists now. Recent scientific evidence suggests the ice sheets in Greenland are melting quickly because of rising air temperature and warm ocean waters, which is causing sea level rise and threatening coastal areas. UN Climate Actions are aimed at limiting global warming by lowering carbon emissions, which would eventually lead to less ice melting in the polar areas, including Greenland. Greenland’s potential future, on the other hand, is unknown. The key question remains: is it possible to stabilize Greenland’s ice cover, or will it be a completely “Green” continent in the future if the Paris Agreement’s (2015) carbon reduction goals are not met?

While past evidence of melting ice sheets in Greenland has been studied, predicting the future of the huge ice cover is also of significant interest to scientists. Establishing a direct relationship between ice retreat and a warming climate could assist prove the ‘carbon emission – rising temperature – melting ice covers – sea level rise’ pathways.

An image of Greenland Ice Sheet – towards an unpredictable future
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A recent study published in Earth’s Future explored how the spatial breadth of the Greenland ice sheet might change in the context of global warming, using a regional climate model to quantify future changes in the Greenland ice sheet covering various emission scenarios.

Due to the poor performance of climate models in simulating precipitation (including the PRECIS model used in this study), the team only addressed this subject using future temperature estimates. The study, in particular, employed the idea of ice cap climate to estimate whether or not an area will be covered by an ice sheet.

According to the authors, ice cap climatic coverage of Greenland would diminish steadily throughout the century under both RCP8.5 and RCP4.5, meaning that the spatial area of the ice sheet would fall by 15% (RCP4.5) and 25% (RCP8.5) by the end of the century. In comparison, the low-emission scenario (RCP2.6) has the possibility of limiting the loss of Greenland ice sheet coverage to less than 10% by the middle of this century, with no more loss expected after that. Though various surface variables influence the evolution of Greenland’s ice surface mass balance process, the researchers decided to use the temperature projections only to investigate if it is possible to stabilize the Greenland ice sheet given that the PRECIS does perform reasonably well in simulating near-surface air temperature over Greenland.

Compared with the baseline period of 1970-2000, the study projects future ice coverage over Greenland for three periods – 2020s, 2050s, and 2080s under three emission scenarios. “The low-emission scenario of RCP2.6 does have the potential to stabilize the warming climate in Greenland after 2050s and prevent further loss to its ice sheet coverage”, the authors conclude. Ice covering only 65.5% of the country estimated in the baseline period could reduce to 56% in the 2050s and then increase to 57% in the 2080s under a low emission scenario. Hence, low emissions could potentially limit the warming in Greenland below 1°C within the next 30 years and constrain its loss of ice sheet coverage below 10%. 

By contrast, ice coverage will continuously decline throughout this century as the local climate in Greenland is likely to warm up continuously under both medium and high emission scenarios. The worst could be expected in the 2080s under a high-emission scenario, with only around 40% of the country covered by ice caps.

The findings of this study are critical for understanding the consequences of various carbon emission scenarios on stabilizing or limiting warming in Greenland and thus the loss of ice sheet coverage, which is connected to rising sea levels. The results of the study imply that both the high- and medium-emission scenarios would result in ongoing warming in Greenland and thus major ice sheet loss. However, the low-emission scenario has a high potential for reducing local climate warming and ice sheet loss before the 2050s. Most notably, assuming the low-emission scenario is satisfied, no significant changes are projected after the 2050s.

The findings are significant not just for giving climate activists optimism that the Greenland ice sheet will be preserved and coastal populations would be protected from rising sea levels, but also for pressing all nations to take immediate action to decrease carbon emissions. It is fair to expect that the ice sheet covered by the ice cap climate will remain in place indefinitely, but it is difficult to predict when the ice sheet beyond the ice cap climate coverage will begin to melt and eventually disappear, authors highlight. 

It goes without saying that the real ‘Green’ land is on the horizon if we do not take any action to reduce GHG emissions and global warming, and the greatest consequences are obvious. Greenland might envy the beauty of a lush green landscape; however, the rest of the world will suffer from the worst impacts of sea level rise and coastal flooding.

Changes in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have a significant societal impact because they have a direct impact on world sea levels, as glaciers and ice sheets melt, more water enters the ocean. Fortunately, there are some climate policies and actions in place at the global and local scales. So, there is hope! Yet, effective actions are urgently needed to reduce carbon emissions so that we can slow down the disappearance of the ice sheet over Greenland and save our coastal communities from big disasters.

News on the following published article:

Wang, X., Fenech, A., & Farooque, A. A. (2021). Possibility of stabilizing the Greenland ice sheet. Earth’s Future, 9(7), e2021EF002152.

Dr. Xander Wang is an Associate Professor in the School of Climate Change and Adaptation at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). He is also the Director of Climate Smart Lab in the Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation. Dr. Wang has been recently elected as a member of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) College of New Scholars. Dr. Wang has served as the Associate Dean (Interim) in the School of Climate Change and Adaptation and is a core member leading the development of the Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation at UPEI, which is a world-leading research and teaching cluster in climate change impacts and adaptation. Before joining UPEI, Dr. Wang worked as an Assistant Professor in the School of Geosciences at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, US.

Dr. Pelin Kinay is a postdoctoral fellow of the Climate Smart Lab in the Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation at UPEI. Her research interest focuses on climate change adaptation and its associated impacts on human health, as well as the natural and human-caused variables that influence climate change.

Dr. Aminur Shah is a postdoctoral fellow of the Climate Smart Lab in the Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation at UPEI. His research interest focuses on vulnerability and risk assessment of social-ecological systems to natural hazards, sustainable flood risk management, sustainability assessment, climate change impacts and adaptation, community risk reduction, and nature-based solutions.

Dr. Quan Dau is a postdoctoral fellow of the Climate Smart Lab in the Canadian Centre for Climate Change and Adaptation at UPEI. His research interest focuses on water science and global climate change, including but not limited to, hydrological cycle, water resources planning and management, remote sensing, artificial intelligence, climate change adaptation, irrigation water management, socio-economic projection, and reservoir operating management.


aminur shah, climate model, Greenland, Ice Sheet, pelin kinay, quan dau, university of prince edward island, xander wang

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