Here’s how climate change on Greenland will affect us all

Cracks in the ice sheet. Image: Getty.

 The largest wildfire ever recorded in Greenland was recently spotted close to the west coast town of Sisimiut, not far from Disko Island where I research retreating glaciers. The fire has captured public and scientific interest – not just because its size and location came as a surprise, but also because it is yet another signpost of deep environmental change in the Arctic.

Greenland is an important cog in the global climate system. The ice sheet which covers 80 per cent of the island reflects so much of the sun’s energy back into space that it moderates temperatures through what is known as the “albedo effect”. And since it occupies a strategic position in the North Atlantic, its meltwater tempers ocean circulation patterns.

Most of Greenland is covered by more than a kilometre of ice. Image: Eric Gaba/NGDC/creativecommons.

But Greenland is especially vulnerable to climate change, as Arctic air temperatures are currently rising at twice the global average rate. Environmental conditions are frequently setting new records: “the warmest”, “the wettest”, “the driest”.

Despite its size, the fire itself represents only a snapshot of Greenland’s fire history. It alone cannot tell us about wider Arctic climate change.

But when we superimpose these extraordinary events onto longer-term environmental records, we can see important trends emerging.

The ice sheet is melting

Between 2002 and 2016, the ice sheet lost mass at a rate of around 269 gigatonnes per year. One gigatonne is onebn tonnes. One tonne is about the weight of a walrus.

During the same period, the ice sheet also showed some unusual short-term behaviour. The 2012 melt season was especially intense – 97 per cent of the ice sheet experienced surface melt at some point during the year. Snow even melted at its summit, the highest point in the centre of the island where the ice is piled up more than 3km above sea level.

Change in total mass of the Greenland Ice Sheet (in Gt) from 2002 to 2016. Red crosses indicate the values every April. Image: NOAA.

In April 2016 Greenland saw abnormally high temperatures and its earliest ever “melt event” (a day in which more than 10 per cent of the ice sheet has at least 1mm of surface melt). Early melting doesn’t usher in a period of complete and catastrophic change – the ice won’t vanish overnight. But it does illustrate how profoundly and rapidly the ice sheet can respond to rising temperatures.

Permafrost is thawing

Despite its icy image, the margins of Greenland are actually quite boggy, complete with swarms of mosquitoes. This is the “active layer”, made up of peaty soil and sediment up to two metres thick, which temporarily thaws during the summer. The underlying permafrost, which can reach depths of 100m, remains permanently frozen.

Fighting off the mosquitos in boggy Greenland. Image: Kathryn Adamson/author provided.

In Greenland, like much of the Arctic, rising temperatures are thawing the permafrost. This means the active layer is growing by up to 1.5cm per year. This trend is expected to continue, seeing as under current IPCC predictions, Arctic air temperatures will rise by between 2.0°C and 7.5°C this century.

Arctic permafrost contains more than 1,500bn tonnes of dead plants and animals (around 1,500bn walrus equivalent) which we call “organic matter”. Right now, this stuff has been frozen for thousands of years. But when the permafrost thaws this organic matter will decay, releasing carbon and methane (another greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.

If thawing continues, it’s estimated that by 2100 permafrost will emit 850-1,400bn tonnes of CO₂ equivalent (for comparison: total global emissions in 2012 was 54bn tonnes of CO₂ equivalent). All that extra methane and carbon of course has the potential to enhance global warming even further.

With this in mind, it is clear to see why the recent wildfire, which was burning in dried-out peat in the active layer, was especially interesting to researchers. If Greenland’s permafrost becomes increasingly degraded and dry, there is the potential for even bigger wildfires which would release vast stores of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.


Species are adapting to a changing ecosystem

Major changes in the physical environment are already affecting the species that call Greenland home. Just look at polar bears, the face of Arctic climate change. Unlike other bears, polar bears spend most of their time at sea, which explains their Latin name Ursus maritimus. In particular they rely on sea ice as it gives them a deep-water platform from which to hunt seals.

However, since 1979 the extent of sea ice has decreased by around 7.4 per cent per decade due to climate warming, and bears have had to adjust their habitat use. With continued temperature rise and sea ice disappearance, it’s predicted that populations will decline by up to 30 per cent in the next few decades, taking the total number of polar bears to under 9,000.

I have considered only a handful of the major environmental shifts in Greenland over the past few decades, but the effects of increasing temperatures are being felt in all parts of the earth system. Sometimes these are manifest as extreme events, at others as slow and insidious changes.

The ConversationThe different parts of the environmental jigsaw interact, so that changes in one part (sea ice decline, say) influence another (polar bear populations). We need to keep a close eye on the system as a whole if we are to make reliable interpretations – and meaningful plans for the future.

Kathryn Adamson is a senior lecturer in physical geography at Manchester Metropolitan University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.

 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.


There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.