WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
A new study shows, for the first time, how much sea level rise the Greenland ice sheet’s melting will cause. The Frontline dives into the climate injustice the issue raises.
The seas are already rising. As much as climate change may feel like a far-distant future, the reality is that the climate crisis is already here. It has arrived. The increase in global temperature that has already occurred since the Industrial Age is severely affecting our planet’s ice. The hotter it becomes, the more ice will melt. The more ice melts, the less sunlight will be reflected off the ice—and the hotter it will become. Climate change creates vicious feedback loops that drive us further to the edge.
A new study published Monday paints an even clearer image of what’s to come. The seas will keep rising. It’ll be bad, but it’ll grow worse if our leaders don’t take immediate steps to reduce global greenhouse emissions. The worst part is knowing that the folks least responsible for the climate crisis—those living in the Pacific Islands, for instance—will bear the brunt of sea level rise. That’s climate injustice for you. Meanwhile, the actual carbon polluters aren’t doing enough to make things right.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we follow the science. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Every time a new study is released on sea level rise or the melting of our ice sheets, the numbers seem worse than the last. That’s because scientists are always learning more about our planet—and the way climate change is transforming it.
If you head to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, right along the equator, you’ll find some islands whose beauty can’t be captured in words. I’m talking about the Pacific Islands. Over 25,000 islands are sprinkled across the turquoise waters, but they’re in danger. Many islands sit only a few feet above sea level, so every centimeter or inch counts as the waters rise. And, indeed, rise they will. At this point, that much is certain.
A new study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change has estimated the minimum sea level rise we’ll see, likely within the century, due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The Greenland ice sheet will lose at least 3% of its volume—enough to contribute to about 27 centimeters of sea level rise globally, the authors find.
“That is a pretty striking number,” said study author William Colgan, who is a senior researcher of glaciology and climate at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.
While previous sea level rise studies rely on models (which are often complicated and prone to error) to project what’s to come, this paper is the first based on actual observational data of the melting that occurred in Greenland over 20 years from 2000 to 2019 to determine how much volume the ice sheet will continue to lose. This allows us to see what is coming from the climate heating we’ve already caused whereas future projection studies are based on climate models that are grounded in future emissions scenarios.
The paper is also a conservative estimate: it only assesses the melting that will occur from fossil fuels already burned. This is what Colgan calls our “sea level debt.” Our leaders have failed to bring us anywhere near zero emissions, which means even further sea level rise. The study also doesn’t account for dramatic ice loss events, such as glacier calving (when ice chunks break off glaciers). The projected ice loss could be closer to 78 centimeters if the last decade is any indicator of our future. And Greenland isn’t the only ice melting—there’s Antarctica, too. Its loss will contribute to sea level rise, as well.
“We’re coming out with a number that’s larger than most previous assumptions about where Greenland is heading in the next 100 years,” Colgan said. “Honestly, two years from now, there’s probably going to be an even bigger number out there.”
The paper’s scientific approach—based on satellite data observations—doesn’t allow the authors to set a date by which this volume loss in Greenland will occur, but they estimate it will be within the century based on available literature and data. The paper leans on a critical assumption, too: the ice sheet will behave as it always has. Unfortunately, climate change is known to throw curveballs and, well, surprise us. We don’t know for certain how it’ll disrupt the historical nature of Earth’s ice sheets.
“You see the storm clouds of climate change gathering on the horizon, and studies like this show you they’re getting darker and bigger.”
Colgan recalled the cognitive dissonance he felt working on the study. There’s an extreme dichotomy between his research and his lived reality. For instance, this summer has broken global heat records—a major marker of what the paper highlights as a threat to ice sheets. While Colgan and his colleagues witness this unfold, they must also carry on with their lives in a way that feels awfully disconnected from the numbers on their data sheets.
“It’s a strange place to be right now,” he said. “It’s like you see the storm clouds of climate change gathering on the horizon, and studies like this show you they’re getting darker and bigger. You look around the city, and everybody is just enjoying the beach.”
Still, that’s not the case for everyone, right? Many beach-side communities are already feeling the impacts of sea level rise. They can’t quite enjoy the beach when its waters are gobbling up their homes. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York City’s coastal communities. Brett Branco, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Brooklyn College, directs the Science and Resilience Institute at Jamaica Bay, which works directly with residents of New York City who live along Jamaica Bay and are learning to live with flooding impacts.
Many of these families experience nuisance daytime flooding that occurs when the tides are extremely high once or twice a month. Sometimes, children can’t even walk to their bus stop because the water outside is too damn high. Makeshift plank walkways help community members get around when flooding occurs. Drivers aren’t able to gain safe access, so deliveries go missing. Car owners have to be mindful to move their vehicles to higher ground when the high tide rolls in. Otherwise, they risk costly damage from the saltwater.
“Some communities are already experiencing flooding that is disruptive to their daily lives and flooding that affects their quality of life—and that’s the present,” said Branco, who didn’t work on the study but offered his thoughts on its findings. “If you, then, project another foot of sea level rise on top of that, now you’re starting to talk about very large numbers of people starting to experience that same nuisance flooding.”
Impacted communities find a way to survive because they must. That doesn’t make it easy or acceptable. It’s simply the truth. However, the new study underscores the urgency to take immediate action.
President Joe Biden signed into law just earlier this month the Inflation Reduction Act, which commits to cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 40% by 2030. The law doesn’t, however, stop the fossil fuel industry from carrying on with business as usual. These companies are the ones that left us here to drown. Where is the justice?
As long as oil and gas burn, the planet will heat, the ice will melt, and the seas will rise. Some communities will suffer more than others. Too many may be lost for good.