PBS and NPR for Southwest Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What The Melting Of Greenland's Ice Sheet Means For Sea Levels


The record-breaking heat wave that swept over Europe last week has now reached icy Greenland.

TWILA MOON: You can imagine all of California, all of Texas, all of Arizona and all of Nevada covered by ice and reaching more than two miles thick in the center.

CORNISH: That's Twila Moon of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. She studies Greenland's ice sheet, which melts some every summer but not like it's doing right now with this heat. It hasn't melted like this since 2012.

MOON: We even see melt in the very center of the ice sheet, which is extremely unusual.

CORNISH: I understand that this kind of event used to be kind of unheard of, and now we're looking at seven years apart. What do you make of that?

MOON: Yeah, seen melt happen in the center of the ice sheet. We did see that happen in 2012, which was a record amount year. But before that, we hadn't seen it happen since 1889. And by drilling into the ice sheet, we could look even earlier, and the last time it happened before that was 680 years earlier. So having these two large melt years happening quite close together certainly raises alarms about the loss that we're seeing. But it's really this year-to-year build-on of ice loss year after year that's particularly concerning. And unfortunately, that's headed into the ocean and showing up on our coastal shores.

CORNISH: I want to talk about that more. But first, there are people who live on the island, and you go there regularly. What do they say about what they're experiencing?

MOON: There are about 57,000 people who live in Greenland, and they are seeing these changes really clearly. I was in northwest Greenland last August, and we met up with a group of Indigenous hunters there. And they were telling us that they have seen rapid changes, particularly over the last 10 years, and it's entirely changed their hunting. It's changed polar bears - where they're living and how they're behaving. So these changes are very noticeable on the ground and unfortunately, also really noticeable around the whole ice sheet.

CORNISH: What are the long-term effects on the world of Greenland's ice sheet melting?

MOON: Locally, we're changing ecosystems for the people nearby. We're also adding cold freshwater to the ocean and changing how it behaves. But when we zoom out globally, the biggest concern is sea level rise. Any of this ice that we're losing from land is going into the ocean, raising sea levels. And that's what we're seeing increasing the severity of hurricanes like Hurricane Harvey here in the U.S., Hurricane Sandy. And we expect to see more of this flooding saltwater inundation of coastal freshwater, coastal erosion and these sorts of impacts.

CORNISH: Twila, you're very measured in the way you talk to us. I know you've given testimony before Congress. But as someone who's devoted your career to studying this, what goes through your mind, right, when you are looking at this data?

MOON: I certainly - I feel sad. I feel frustrated and really shocked by how rapidly this change is happening. But it's easy to get stuck in what I call the climate blues. And I've found that the most important thing that is the most valuable antidote to the climate blues is taking action. What we do as humans is having the most direct impact on this ice loss, and so being able to take action to reduce climate change is the way that I stay out of the climate blues and also the way I ensure that I'm helping to keep ice on our planet.

CORNISH: Twila Moon is a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Thank you for speaking with us.

MOON: Really, thank you so much for talking about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAREN O AND DANGER MOUSE'S "LUX PRIMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.