Greenland glacier almost triples speed in less than a decade

Posted: 5 August 2005

US scientists have found that the the speed of the Greenland glacier Kangerdlugssuaq has increased beyond all expections and is now travelling at three times the speed it was in 1988, making it one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world. The scientists onboard the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise warn that any changes in the speed of these glaciers could have a tremendous impact on global sea rise.

Outlet glaciers like Kangerdlugssuaq transport ice from the heart of the Greenland Ice Sheet to the ocean and discharge icebergs which contribute to sea level rise. Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier alone transports or "drains" four per cent of the ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet, and so any changes in the speed with which they move holds tremendous significance in terms of sea level rise.

Preliminary findings indicate Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier on Greenland's east coast could be one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world with a speed of almost 14 kilometres per year. The measurements were made using high precision GPS survey methods. The results were compared with measurements made with satellite imagery that revealed the glacier's speed was five kilometers per year in 1996. In addition, Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier unexpectedly receded approximately five kilometres since 2001 after maintaining a stable position for the past 40 years.

Gordon Hamilton, glaciologist, and student Leigh Stearns (University of Maine USA) on Kangerdlussuaq Glacier, Greenland. Photo: Greenpeace/Steve Morgan
Gordon Hamilton, glaciologist, and student Leigh Stearns (University of Maine USA) on Kangerdlussuaq Glacier, Greenland. Photo: Greenpeace/Steve Morgan
Gordon Hamilton, glaciologist, and student Leigh Stearns from the University of Maine (USA), set up monitoring equipment on the remote Kangerdlussuaq Glacier in Greenland to measure the rate at which the glacier is moving. Initial results suggest a rate of flow much larger than expected and could make the glacier one of the fastest moving in the world.© Greenpeace/Steve Morgan
"This is a dramatic discovery," said Dr Gordon Hamilton, who undertook the independently-funded research with University of Maine PhD student Leigh Stearns. "There is concern that the acceleration of this and similar glaciers and the associated discharge of ice is not described in current ice sheet models of the effects of climate change. These new results suggest that the loss of ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet, unless balanced by an equivalent increase in snowfall, could be larger and faster than previously estimated," said Dr. Hamilton.

"As the warming trend migrates north, glaciers at higher latitudes in Greenland might also respond in the same way as Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier. In turn, this could have serious implications for the rate of sea level rise," said Dr Hamilton.

The Greenland Ice Sheet could melt if regional warming exceeds about three degrees Celsius. If this were to occur, sea levels would rise approximately seven metres over a few thousand years. However, a half a metre to one metre rise in sea levels in the next century would have a significant impact and could swamp many cities around the world. More than 70 per cent of the world's population lives on coastal plains, and 11 of the world's 15 largest cities are on the coast or estuaries.

"Greenland's shrinking glaciers are sending an urgent warning to the world that action is needed now to stop climate change," said Martina Krueger, Greenpeace Expedition Leader on board the Arctic Sunrise.

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