Heat wave hits Greenland, melting 11 billion tons of ice

August 8, 2019, 2:44 p.m.
Greenland warm weather
Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The record-breaking heat wave that covered much of Europe has now settled over Greenland, where record warm temperatures have accelerated the melting of the country's ice sheet.

Greenland's ice sheet — which covers 80 percent of the island — typically melts in summer, beginning around the end of May. This year, however, it began earlier in the month and has been melting since then, primarily because the country has seen abnormally high temperatures. Greenland's capital city of Nuuk recorded temperatures in the high 50s this week; normal temperatures are about 10 degrees cooler.

Scientists say the ice sheet had its biggest melt of the year on Aug. 1, when it lost 11 billion tons of surface ice to the oceans, CNN reports. That's roughly what would fill 4.4 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to the news site.

To get a different perspective of what that much ice melt looks like, consider this video:

Although the melt has likely peaked, it isn't over.

"The long-term forecast is for continuing warm and sunny weather in Greenland, so that means the amount of the ice loss will continue," Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist with the Danish Meteorological Institute, told the Associated Press. (And for a deeper dive into what's at play and what to expect, the Polar Portal, which is run by Danish research institutions, offers a much deeper explanation.)

The heat wave that caused the melt is the same warm air from north Africa that triggered the heat wave in Europe last month, setting records in at least a dozen countries.

July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded, and not just in Europe. A record-breaking heat wave settled over the East Coast and Midwest, affecting about one-third of the population of the U.S. and causing widespread power outages.

The role of wildfires

russia wildfires This NASA image shows wildfire smoke over Russia in July 2019. The blanket of smoke was created by multiple fires extending across central and northern Asia. (Photo: NASA)

The hot, dry weather has also caused massive forest fires in Russia with high winds spreading the flames to nearly 11,580 square miles (30,000 square kilometers) of land, according to the AP.

Wildfires have also been burning across Alaska and Greenland, fueled by high temperatures and strong winds.

NASA has warned how these fires might play a role in global warming.

"One fire here and there is not a big deal, as far as immediate local weather and climate impacts," said Santiago Gassó, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a release. "But when you have so many fires continuously emitting, the smoke remains in the atmosphere for so long that it can actually change temperature profiles for several days and has a meteorological and climatic impacts."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in August 2019.