Published September 15, 2017
How stable is the Greenland Ice Sheet?
Top climate scientists from around the world met in Buffalo this week to address this question at a workshop run by UB geologist Jason Briner.
The event included almost 40 fast-paced talks on ice sheet history, climate modeling and ice dynamics, followed by breakout sessions in which small teams discussed what kind of science still needs to be done to answer important questions about ice loss on Greenland.
In coming weeks, the scientists will use discussions from the workshop to draft a white paper providing the National Science Foundation with recommendations on what kinds of research the agency should prioritize when it comes to the Greenland Ice Sheet and sea level rise.
Workshop participants included many luminaries in the field of climate science, such as co-organizer Richard Alley, a Penn State geologist who hosted a PBS special on climate change and has testified about the issue to the U.S. Congress on multiple occasions, and Bette Otto-Bliesner, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who is internationally known for her work on climate modeling.
If the entire Greenland Ice Sheet vanished, it would dump enough water into oceans to raise sea level by an estimated 23 feet, causing extensive damage to coastal communities from New York City and Florida to Bangladesh. But the climate models that scientists use to predict ice loss are still imprecise, leaving open questions about what the future holds.
“We really need more data,” said Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute and one of the world’s leading authorities on using ice samples called ice cores to understand the history and possible future of ice sheets. “The Greenland Ice Sheet will not melt totally in 10 or 100 years, but it is still an awakening dragon, or an awakening giant, as people say.”
Obtaining better information about how much oceans could rise in the next century is crucial, she said, because affected communities need to know how they should prepare for sea level change.
“We have seen, over and over, that high water along the coasts can have terrible consequences,” Alley wrote in an email to UBNow after the workshop. “Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and now hurricanes Harvey and Irma are just a few of many. The peak storm surges of Sandy or Harvey were about 13 feet (4 meters). If Greenland were to lose its ice, the average sea level would rise about 23 feet (just over 7 meters). We would see it coming, but that would be huge.”
He said climate models give good estimates of how much sea level rise will occur as a result of warming, but that the estimates “come with a worrisome twist.”
As he explained, “We have some estimate of the rise, and there is an uncertainty so that the rise might be a little less or a little more than we expected, but there is some chance that the rise could be much higher than expected, with no offsetting possibility of a much smaller rise.”
The two-day workshop was held at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo. Conversations about basal ice and cosmogenic isotopes took place there and at the Big Ditch Brewing Company on Huron Street, where scientists enjoyed a Monday evening dinner complete with a Greenland-themed cake. The confection was adorned with a silhouette of Greenland topped by white frosting blobs representing the shrinking ice sheet.
The cake was a hit, and so was the workshop.
“It was an exemplary group that has been gathered here,” Dahl-Jensen said. What made the event unique, she said, was the constellation of disciplines represented, all focused completely on a single problem: Greenland. “We learned a lot,” she said, “about what we can do.”