Greenland’s Ice Sheet Received Rainfall for the First Time

On 14th August Greenland’s ice sheet saw rain for the first time on its peak – the highest point for hours ever since Scientists have been making observations there. It is the latest signal of how climate change is affecting every part of the planet as temperatures remained above the freezing point for nine hours.


According to the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), there is no previous report of rainfall at this location. It reaches 3,216 meters (10,551 feet) in elevation as this was the third time in less than a decade, and the latest date in the year on record, that the National Science Foundation’s Summit Station had above-freezing temperatures and wet snow.

Rising global temperatures driven by climate change have made extreme weather events more common. The Greenland Ice Sheet is no exception, the rain that fell for nine hours coincided with the ice sheet’s most recent “melt event”.


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In the “melt event” the temperatures get high enough that the thick ice begins to melt.  There have been two major melt events there in July, and Scientists also recorded melt events on the ice sheet in 2019, 2012, and 1995. Before these events, “melting is inferred from ice cores to have been absent since an event in the late 1800s,” the center said.

Melted ice from both the Arctic Ocean and Greenland has caused an influx of freshwater into the North Atlantic Ocean. | Christine Zenino from Chicago, US, CC BY, via Wikimedia Commons

The melting event that occurred during the August rain (August 14 to 16, 2021) was similar to the events that took place this late July. It came about after “a strong low pressure center over Baffin Island and high air pressure southeast of Greenland conspired to push warm air and moisture rapidly from the south,” the Scientists said.


Global Climate Change

The Washington Post reported that a senior research scientist – Ted Scambos at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder wrote “This event by itself does not have a huge impact, but it’s indicative of the increasing extent, duration, and intensity of melting on Greenland”. “Like the heat wave in the [U.S. Pacific] northwest, it’s something that’s hard to imagine without the influence of global climate change.”

Greenland’s ice sheet is just one of just two on Earth. The other one in Antarctica is about 656,000 square miles (1699032.2 square kilometers) of glacial land ice, which blankets the majority of the country.

Another view of melt ponds and surface water on the ice sheet, plus surface darkening, in southwestern Greenland on Aug. 22, 2021. (NASA Worldview)

“Greenland, like the rest of the world, is changing,” Scambos said. “We now see three melting events in a decade in Greenland — and before 1990, that happened about once every 150 years. And now rainfall: in an area where rain never fell.”


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The Arctic region is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet under climate change and it has warmed by almost 2 degrees Celsius so far. Global average temperatures have risen about 1 degree Celsius, or almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900- the growth of industrialization and fossil fuel use in the mid-19th century. The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the Earth. The loss of reflective ice contributes somewhere between thirty to fifty percent of the planet’s global heating.

Because of hotter global temperatures, Greenland and Antarctica lost enough ice over the last sixteen years to fill all of Lake Michigan, a 2020 study found (from a report titled ‘Pervasive ice sheet mass loss reflects competing ocean and atmosphere processes’). The melting has implications for people far from Greenland and the ice loss is helping drive sea-level rise, which is threatening coastal communities around the world with flooding.

Icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland. The climate crisis is having a profound impact on glaciers. Photograph: Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Going Ahead

Speaking of the future operations at the Summit Station that would need to change because of the significant rain event, Jennifer Mercer said “It means that we need to consider weather events that we have not had to deal with before in the history of our operations there”. She is a program officer for the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation.

“Increasing weather events including melting, high winds, and now rain, over the last 10 years have occurred outside the range of what is considered normal,” Mercer said to CNN. “And these seem to be occurring more and more.”

“We are crossing thresholds not seen in millennia, and frankly this is not going to change until we adjust what we’re doing to the air,” Scambos told CNN.


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