Greenland Ice Sheet Hiding Billions of Gallons of Fresh Water Underneath

greenland ice sheet

The Greenland ice sheet, a vast body of ice covering approximately 80 percent of the country, was discovered recently by scientists as hiding beneath its icy surface billions of gallons of fresh water. This finding was revealed as scientists and researchers are monitoring the ice sheet’s continuous melting as it relates to climate change and the rise of the sea level.

What baffles scientists is that the vast reservoir of fresh water, located at the southeastern part of Greenland, remains liquid even if the temperature above is always below freezing point. The reservoir of water was discovered in 2011 by researchers from the University of Utah while drilling for samples. Upon further inspections, the area covered by the liquid water was estimated to be 27,000 square miles, or half the size of New York State. According to the study published in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience, on the first drill, the water was found at a depth of 33 feet and on the second drill it was at about 82 feet.

The discovery has significant implications in understanding climate change and global sea-level rise. In terms of contributions to the global sea-level rise, the Greenland ice sheet is the largest contributor and it is continuously melting at a record pace. According to Rick Forster, professor of geography at the University of Utah and lead author of the study published in Nature, the water reservoir can help researchers better understand the relationship between meltwater runoff and sea levels.

An earlier National Geographic report indicates that the global sea levels have risen from 0.07 inches in the 1980s to o.14 inches in the 1990s. And, if the Greenland ice sheet is lost all together due to rapid melting, it is estimated that an additional six meters of water would be added to the global sea level and this will be catastrophic. In the last 20 years, the ice losses have already increased the average sea levels by 0.34 inches.

Earlier studies have indicated three significant contributory factors to rising sea levels: first is thermal expansion, which pertains to water heating up; second is the continuous melting of ice caps and glaciers; and, lastly, the rapid ice loss from Greenland and West Antarctica.

Between 1992 and 2001, the Greenland ice sheet lost about 34 billion tons of ice annually; and, between the years 2002 and 2011, that figure increased to 215 billion tons. With the new discovery of fresh water stored underneath the vast ice sheet, this could suggest that a possible large amount of melted ice over the years goes to this place.

What is causing concern among the researchers is the fact that if these vast amounts of water trapped under the Greenland ice sheets escaped, this could greatly hasten global sea-level rise. According to Forster, “Most models assume water runs off or refreezes.”  Yet, with this latest finding, this could either mean that the water reservoir is buffering the sea-level rise and delaying the whole process or the water acts as a lubricant to moving glaciers and hastening their movement into the global ocean. He also added, “We don’t know the answer to this right now. It’s massive, it’s a new system we haven’t seen before.”

The discovery that the Greenland ice sheet is hiding billions of gallons of fresh water underneath is indeed a great scientific find. Understanding this and its impact on the global sea-level rise would help researchers accurately predict sea-level rise and advise people on any disaster preparedness plans to undertake.


By Roberto I. Belda


Alaska Dispatch

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