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Changing snowfall is making Greenland darker and warmer

In a new study, scientists attributed this decrease in snowfall to a weather phenomenon called 'atmospheric blocking'

In this file photo from August 2019, an iceberg is pictured near the island of Kulusuk (also spelled Qulusuk), in the Sermersooq municipality on the southeastern shore of Greenland. (AFP)

Greenland is becoming darker and warmer due to a weather pattern that is pushing fresh snowfall away from its ice sheet, a study said Monday.

A reduction in the amount of fresh, light-colored snow leaves more old and dark snow exposed on the surface -- which in turn causes the ice sheet to absorb more heat and melt faster.

"As snow ages, even over hours to a few days, you get this reduction in reflectivity, and that's why the fresh snow is so important," said Erich Osterberg, an associate professor of earth sciences at Dartmouth College and co-author of the paper in Geophysical Research Letters.

Osterberg and colleagues attributed the decrease in snowfall to a weather phenomenon called "atmospheric blocking" -- in which persistent high-pressure systems hover over the ice sheet for weeks at a time.

These systems, which have become more prevalent in the region since the 1990s, hold warmer air over western Greenland, reduce light-blocking cloud cover, and push snowstorms to the north.

The result is a "triple whammy," said Osterberg. "This all contributes to Greenland melting faster and faster."

Dirty snow

Some research has linked this phenomenon to human-driven climate change, but Osterberg noted further study is needed on why the blocking is happening.

"Given how important atmospheric blocking is to Greenland melting, I believe this is a critical target for research so we can improve our predictions of future sea level rise," he told AFP.

Co-author Gabriel Lewis added that it's not just less snowfall driving the warming -- it's the different kind of snow that is left behind.

"Once it falls and sits on the surface of the ice sheet in the sun, it changes shape and the snow grains become larger over time," he said. It becomes more rounded and less reflective than newer, crystal-shaped snow.

According to the team's calculations, a one percent change in reflectivity across Greenland's ice sheet could cause an additional 25 gigatons of ice to be lost over three years.

Also read: Climate Change Tracker: Loss of Arctic sea ice will trigger greater warming

A fishing boat sails past a large iceberg at the mouth of the Jakobshavns ice fjord near Ilulissat, Greenland, in this file photo from May 2007.
A fishing boat sails past a large iceberg at the mouth of the Jakobshavns ice fjord near Ilulissat, Greenland, in this file photo from May 2007. (REUTERS)

The team trekked 2,700 miles (4,340 kilometers) across Greenland on snowmobiles to carry out two sampling and survey campaigns in the summers of 2016 and 2017, to try to determine the cause of the darkening, which had been observed by satellite imagery over decades.

One hypothesis had been that the snow was becoming dirtier, because of soot from air pollution. But the researchers found only about one part per billion of impurities, dispelling this hypothesis.

According to research cited in the study, the Greenland ice sheet has warmed about 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.85 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1982, and the continent is experiencing its greatest melt and runoff rates in at least the last 450 years.

In a separate study, scientists warned that a swathe of the Greenland ice sheet may be nearing a "tipping point" into a new unstable state of melting that would be irreversible in the short term.

As the central-western Greenland ice sheet melts, it is also shrinking in height, with its surface exposed to warmer temperatures at lower altitudes that contributes further to melting, according to research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The two studies are among many in recent months to warn of the increasing rate of ice melt in the Arctic, where climate change is causing temperatures to rise much faster than in the rest of the world, a Reuters report explains.

Greenland's ice sheet -- which is the world's second largest after the Antarctic ice sheet -- is estimated to contain enough water to raise the average sea level by more than 7 metres (or approximately 23 feet), the Reuters report adds. While it would take centuries for all of that to spill into the ocean under the worst-case scenario, scientists say it is crucial to slow that process by curbing greenhouse gas emissions now.

Also read: The Arctic: a coveted location with a threatened ecosystem

(With inputs from AFP and Reuters)

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