Warming climate changes Greenland's landscape as we watch

Climate Cast
Every Thursday, MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner joins The Daily Circuit to talk about the latest research on our changing climate and the consequences we're seeing here in Minnesota and worldwide.
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A warming climate is reshaping Greenland as scientists watch, says Paul Huttner, chief meteorologist for MPR News.

Runoff from melting glaciers threatens to raise the world's sea level. But the retreating ice is also revealing places never seen before, sparking interest among mining and oil and gas companies.

"This is one of the interesting opportunities evolving as the climate changes, whether we like it or not," Huttner said. "Mineral companies, oil and gas companies, they are racing to explore in the Arctic as these new areas are exposed by significantly melting Arctic ice. It's kind of a gold rush."

One newly discovered feature, still under the ice, is a gorge that rivals America's Grand Canyon:

Huttner said Greenland is becoming "the new frontier for climate change research," providing unprecedented opportunity for researchers.

"The reason is we look at Greenland as sort of an early warning system for what could happen in terms of sea-level rise, because Greenland has an excellent climate record," he said. "These ice cores that they drill down to two and a half miles deep go back 800,000 years. We can study the air bubbles trapped in each layer of ice, and that tells us what the CO2 levels were, what the temperatures were, what the oceans were doing at that time."

What scientists are finding, though, is not comforting.

"What they're seeing now is an unprecedented rate of retreat in these Greenland glaciers ... maybe the fastest rate of retreat in 10,000 years," he said.

"Last summer there was record ice melt and runoff from the glaciers in Greenland. It washed out bridges, construction vehicles. And millions of these little melt-water rivers that are winding their way down through these glaciers are cutting channels in and under some of these glaciers. And that's causing concern because some of the GPS weather stations are starting to move a little bit. It's not a lot, but it's a sign that lubrication is occurring."

Huttner offered the image of a stick of butter on a hot pan. "It sits there, it doesn't move, and then finally it slips," he said. "And that's the concern in Greenland. And the biggest concern in Greenland is, what happens if a significant chunk of that ice sheet melts? It can contribute to global sea-level rise."

He pointed out that researchers have been able to determine the relationship of Greenland ice to world sea levels in ancient times. "About 125,000 years ago, Greenland was about 5 degrees warmer and global sea level was about 12 to 15 feet higher than it is today. They think Greenland maybe contributed about a couple of feet of that, maybe as much as six feet. But even ... a three-, four-, five-, six-foot contribution to sea level — that's a world catastrophe. Most of the major cities in the world located on the coasts would be fighting to stay above water."

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