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Going, Going, Gone: Ice Sheet Thaw in Greenland Gives Way to Alarming Rise in Vegetation, Greenhouse Gases

Greenland's Ice Sheet Is Melting, Producing Methane Vegetation
Source: MEGA

Since the 1980s, vast swaths of Greenland’s ice sheet are being overtaken with methane-producing wetlands, researchers say.

Feb. 16 2024, Published 1:01 p.m. ET

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Researchers from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom have raised concerns about significant changes in Greenland's environment since the 1980s, which, they warn, could lead to rising sea levels and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Using satellite data spanning from the late 1980s to the 2010s, the researchers analyzed over 11,000 square miles of Greenland. Their findings, published in a paper in the journal Scientific Reports recently, reveal a concerning trend.

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They observed that Greenland's ice sheet and glaciers have been steadily melting, giving way to wetlands, shrubs and barren rocks.

The study indicates that the area of ice loss is equivalent to the size of Albania, representing about 1.6% of Greenland's total ice and glacier cover. Meanwhile, the land covered in vegetation has more than doubled, reaching 33,774 square miles.

The expansion of wetlands, which produce methane emissions, has almost quadrupled, posing threats to surrounding infrastructure, buildings and communities.

Dr. Michael Grimes, lead author of the study from the university's School of Geography, emphasized the significance of these changes. He pointed out that the alteration of vegetation, in conjunction with glacier and ice sheet retreat, is impacting sediment and nutrient flow into coastal waters.

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This is crucial, particularly for indigenous populations whose traditional hunting practices rely on these ecosystems. Additionally, the loss of ice in Greenland significantly contributes to global sea level rise, presenting challenges now and in the future.

Co-author Jonathan Carrivick, an Earth scientist at the university's Faculty of Environment, highlighted secondary reactions triggered by ice loss, leading to further environmental changes.

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These changes include the exposure of bare rock, colonization by tundra and eventually shrub growth. Moreover, melting ice releases water that carries sediment and silt, eventually forming wetlands and fenlands.

The researchers attribute these changes to a rise in air temperatures since the 1970s, with the region warming at double the global mean rate. They found that Greenland's annual air temperature between 2007 and 2012 was on average 3 degrees Celsius warmer compared to the 1979 to 2000 average.

As part of their study, the researchers developed a predictive model to identify areas in Greenland most susceptible to accelerated environmental changes in the future. They hope these insights will inform strategies for conservation efforts.

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