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July 27, 2012
There were some shocking photos from NASA this week showing the ice sheet covering Greenland melting like a Hershey bar left on the dashboard of the car. The "before" photo showed Greenland almost entirely white, with a little pink around the edges. The "after" photo showed Greenland almost entirely pink. Why any part of Greenland is pink was not explained. This dramatic change had happened over just four days between July 8 and July 12.
Normally about 40 percent of the ice sheet thaws, but this year, 97 percent of it had turned pink in the NASA photos. Greenland is a big place, and for it to have turned pink in that short a time certainly took everybody by surprise. Locals said that it was a very warm summer there, well beyond T-shirt weather. My guess is that any time you aren’t wrapped in polar fleece in Greenland is unusual. Maybe it turned pink because everybody in Greenland is running around half naked and they are all sunburned.
Anyway, the images and accompanying news stories all left the alarming impression that the massive pile of ice that covers Greenland had melted in the space of four days. It sounded like Greenland was down to bare ground and ready to plant corn. When that happens, the oceans are supposed to rise by 23 feet or so, which would put much of places like Florida and New York City under water.
You can imagine what a disaster that would be. If New York City and London were under water, it would be quite difficult for crooked bankers to manipulate interest rates. A 23-foot rise in sea level would flood Washington, D.C., drowning Congress. So the melting of the ice in Greenland is not without its benefits.
With all the news about Greenland melting, I was expecting to hear something about high tide in St. Louis, or summer vacation in the Hamptons being spoiled by flooding. But that didn’t happen. The oceans didn’t rise.
It turns out that the ice sheet didn’t exactly melt. What NASA didn’t explain very well, until you get way down to the bottom of the story, is that what really happened is that the surface of the ice sheet thawed. Instead of solid ice you could skate on covering all but the coastal fringe of Greenland, the ice now had puddles of meltwater on the surface. The surface of Greenland has become a few inches of Slurpee-like slush covering the ice. But the ice is still there, thousands of feet thick, and the oceans are not going to swallow New York. At least not yet.
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Well, that was a relief. Still, having that much of the surface go slushy in a four-day timeframe was unusual. One article quotes a scientist who described the rapid thaw as "unprecedented," adding that it happens roughly every 150 years. The last time Greenland went slushy on the surface was back in 1889. So the unprecedented thaw was more or less on schedule.
While scientists were sounding the alarm that we have melting going on at an unusually rapid rate, not seen for 123 years, the sort of obvious question is, "So what?" What does it mean? Does this confirm that we are experiencing human-caused global climate change? As if this hot, dry, incendiary summer, following a warm and dry winter weren’t evidence enough that something is out of kilter.
The obvious question is what happened to the weather patterns last time this happened back in 1889? Was that an unusually hot summer everywhere? Were there volcanoes erupting someplace? Were there droughts and hurricanes and tornadoes that year? There was the Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, but that happened before Greenland thawed. In other words, was there anything even remotely predictive about the 1889 Greenland thaw that might suggest what we should anticipate for the coming year? Most importantly, what did the ski season in 1890 look like?
Those are all interesting questions, but because it’s summer and everybody was trying to get away on vacation, nobody bothered to ask or look up the data. So we don’t know.
The Greenland thaw is so huge that it has to matter. There were surely consequences that resulted from it in the weather someplace. But we don’t know what. Still, it’s a safe bet that whatever happened back in 1889 when Greenland thawed the last time, it will happen again. Whatever it was. So get ready.
In the meantime, Greenland is expected to freeze over again in the next few weeks. The sunburned locals will crawl back into their parkas to await the next great unprecedented thaw, which, if precedent holds, will be in about 2162. So if you want to see Greenland covered in slush, you’d best make arrangements quickly.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.