“Again, I was hit, and vaguely sickened, by Greenland’s inhuman scale,” Elizabeth Kolbert remarks near the end of her latest article for the New Yorker, a long report on the unusual melting taking place on Greenland’s ice sheet and what it means for the people who live there, the scientists who work there, and, more broadly, life on Earth.
Perhaps it’s fitting that we should look to a land of incomprehensible dimensions to help us understand the enormity, both in the empirical and the moral sense, of our climate-altering behavior. Yet aside from the political and economic independence global warming might bring Greenland in the short term, there’s little in Kolbert’s article to be optimistic about, even for those who can face the reality of the crisis. As Kolbert herself points out, the changes she reports taking place today were locked in decades ago, just as climate efforts nations are making right now won’t take effect for years to come. “In effect, we are living in the climate of the past, but already we’ve determined the climate’s future.”
Melting isn’t unusual on Greenland’s ice sheet, yet it’s begun to take place “at higher and higher elevations, earlier and earlier in the spring,” Kolbert writes. “This year’s melt season began so freakishly early, in April, that when the data started to come in, many scientists couldn’t believe it.” And the melting process can be as complex as the ice itself, the oldest layers of which date back to before the last ice age. More water on the surface of the ice leads to more absorption of sunlight, and thus more melting, followed by more absorption. Melting at higher elevations can also mean more water makes it to the bedrock, which can hasten the ice’s journey toward the ocean. “At a certain point, these feedback loops become self-sustaining,” Kolbert writes. “It is possible that that point has already been reached.”
Kolbert interviews a number of scientists and makes clear that there’s still much to learn about what, exactly, is going on. There’s debate, for example, over whether ice melting is more of a threat than ice breaking off into the sea, a process known as calving. Still, it’s impossible to escape the severity of the problem, whatever form it might take.
“What concerns me the most is that this is the kind of experiment we can only do once,” says Eric Rignot, a glaciologist from UC Irvine who studies ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica (where melting is also a problem). “If we start opening the floodgates on some of these glaciers, even if we stop our emissions, even if we go back to a better climate, the damage is going to be done. There’s no red button to stop this.”
And what form might that damage ultimately take? According to Kolbert, a major portion of Greenland’s ice sheet, known as the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream, has, by itself, “the potential to raise global sea levels by three feet.”