Melting ice cap triggering earthquakes

The Greenland ice cap is melting so quickly that it is triggering earthquakes as pieces of ice several cubic kilometres in size break off.

Scientists monitoring events this summer say the acceleration could be catastrophic in terms of sea-level rise and make predictions this February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change far too low.

Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, said in Ilulissat yesterday: “We have seen a massive acceleration of the speed with which these glaciers are moving into the sea. The ice is moving at 2 metres an hour on a front 5km [3 miles] long and 1,500 metres deep. That means that this one glacier puts enough fresh water into the sea in one year to provide drinking water for a city the size of London for a year.”

The glacier at Ilulissat is down on the Canadian side:

google map greenland

The earthquake angle is, I think, odd more than a real cause for concern. More worrying is the problem of meltwater appearing at the bottom:

This melt water was pouring through to the bottom of the glacier creating a lake 500 metres deep which was causing the glacier “to float on land. These melt-water rivers are lubricating the glacier, like applying oil to a surface and causing it to slide into the sea. It is causing a massive acceleration which could be catastrophic.”

The glacier is now moving at 15km a year into the sea although in surges it moves even faster. He measured one surge at 5km in 90 minutes – an extraordinary event.

As I understand melting ice-caps, this is the proper concern: the ice does not merely melt, in the commonly-perceived sense. Rather, it melts where it meets the rock beneath, such that the entire thing (or, currently, great swathes of it), just flow off. The increasing pace of the advance of glaciers off mountains, ice shelves into the sea, etc. are the results.

Sadly, part of me really is curious to see what would happen in the event of a catastrophic dis-lodging of a glacier such as this. A very stupid part of me (the boy part. I mean, not that boy part). The impact on salt-water ecosystems, the impact on sea levels, particularly the impact on the planet’s reflection-cum-absorption of heat, would not be pleasant.

The question is what to do about it? Very little, actually. This is a signal (I think – opinions differ) that the problem is in fact worse than even people who accept that there is a problem perceive it to be. I don’t know that anything we do (or don’t do, or stop doing) will keep these glaciers on their rock foundations. They are each bells that cannot be un-rung. This, for example:

Yesterday Christian, Shia, Sunni, Hindu, Shinto, Buddhist and Jewish religious leaders took a boat to the tongue of the glacier for a silent prayer for the planet. They were invited by Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

I don’t see as helping. I’d rather they hit their constituencies with God-based exhortations to respond as a global community.


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