Greenland is melting, and fast. That’s the gist of the findings that will be presented on Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The water melting from Greenland in the past five years would fill up about 11 Chesapeake Bays, according to the AP.

Oh, but it gets worse. In addition to Greenland, Antarctica and Alaska have also taken a hit from global warming. The three areas combined have lost more than 2 trillion tons of land ice since 2003, which is when NASA first began taking estimates.

And as it turns out, there’s a big difference between the impacts of melting land ice versus melting sea ice. When sea ice melts, it doesn’t have much effect on sea levels because the ice itself is already taking up space in the water. But land ice is a different story. Once it melts, it makes its way from the land to the sea, hence rising sea levels. As the AP reports, Greenland is adding about half a millimeter of sea level rise each year. Plus, between Greenland, Antarctica, and Alaska, melting land ice has raised global sea levels about one-fifth of an inch in the past five years.

But the bad news doesn’t end there. Once the ice has melted into the sea, it’s hardly dormant. Since water expands as it warms, rising temperatures mean that sea levels will only continue to expand (i.e. rise) as the water warms. Unfortunately, in a world where everything is connected, water is hardly the only element affected by the warming taking place.

From the AP:

As sea ice melts, the Arctic waters absorb more heat in the summer, having lost the reflective powers of vast packs of white ice. That absorbed heat is released into the air in the fall. That has led to autumn temperatures in the last several years that are six to 10 degrees warmer than they were in the 1980s, said research scientist Julienne Stroeve at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. (source: AP)

“That's a strong and early impact of global warming,” said Stroeve.

Arctic thawing also means that more methane, which is trapped under permafrost in places like Alaska, will be released into the atmosphere. Methane is 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, so it’s safe to say that methane is not something we’d like to see more of in the atmosphere anytime soon.

So how are Greenlanders reacting to all of this startling news? Surprisingly well, according to Greenland’s Foreign Minister, Inuuteq Holm Olsen, in a recent Plenty Q&A. Though Olsen acknowledges global warming’s negative impacts (like the damage to infrastructure due to melting permafrost and an increase in violent storms), he also mentions that there can be positive effects to Greenland’s melting, like more fresh water for developing hydroelectric power plants; increased accessibility to minerals; and a prolonged growing season.

“For the first time in my life, a couple of weeks ago, I could buy cabbages grown in Greenland,” Olsen says.

Optimism is no doubt needed during a period of such troubled waters. But let’s hope that Greenland’s cheerfulness doesn’t keep it from doing its part in Copenhagen next year during the UN Climate Summit. With a problem as global as warming, it’s crucial that everybody is on board with curbing climate change—even if that means sacrificing their fresh cabbages.

This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Icy lands melting at accelerating pace
Greenland, Antarctica, and Alaska are all suffering due to climate change.