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GRACE-measurement and climate change - urbo-like ice melting

08 December 2009 University of Stuttgart

What is the climate change impact on the ice-covered regions of the Earth? How does deglaciation affect global sea level changes? These questions address scientists from the Institute of Geodesy at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, and the Department of Spatial Science at the Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. For this purpose, the German-Australian team investigates space-borne gravity measurements provided by the GRACE satellite mission. As a result, they found out that the Greenland glaciers shrunk continuously in the last few years; above all, they estimated the changes not to be linear in time but accelerating. On average, recent Greenland ice-mass decline caused an annual sea-level rise of about 0.5 millimetres.

For the first time ever, the GRACE satellite mission allows the determination of global mass variations–such as ice melting in the polar areas–from changes in the Earth gravitational pull. The underlying measurement principle is as simple as stunning; it bases on the fact that the redistribution of masses on the Earth surface maps in changes of the terrestrial gravity field. Hence, scientists measure the spatio-temporal variations of the Earth’s gravitational attraction on a test mass in space, namely the GRACE spacecraft. From these observations they derive surface mass-variation patterns.

The satellite data clearly reveal that the Greenland area exhibits the main dominant mass shrinkage over the whole globe. It is predominantly evoked by the persistent melting of the Greenland glaciers. Presently, the Arctic island loses between 165 and 189 cubic kilometres ice a year. This estimate is considerably higher than the results derived from geometric satellite measurements conducted in the 1990s.

Deglaciation causes melt water influx into the oceans. Furthermore, globally increasing atmospheric temperatures involve thermal expansion of seawater. Both effects substantially contribute to sea-level rise. Most notably, opposed to common reasoning, sea level does not change uniformly, that is, in terms of a constant layer over the world’s oceans. In fact, the global redistribution of masses entails the sea level to vary differently from location to location. As a basic principle, ice melting in the Northern Hemisphere translates in sea-level rise in the Southern oceans. On the other hand, deglaciation over the Antarctica causes sea-level rise in the Northern oceans.

In summation, the effects are alarming–calling in mind that nowadays millions of people settle down in coastal and near-coastal areas. Based on current findings, extrapolations to the end of the 21st century forecast the Greenland ablation impact on mean sea-level rise to be in the range of five centimetres. This estimate is highly conservative, neglecting both accelerated deglaciation and mass balance over Antarctica, Alaska and further ice-covered regions. Taking progression effects into account, potential sea level rise of 50 centimetres within the next 100 years becomes realistic. Continuing satellite measurements will manifest the reliability of short-, medium- and long-term predictions.

Attached files

  • Global mass variations from August 2002 to July 2008 as observed by the GRACE satellite mission. Negative signals dominate over Greenland, Alaska and Antarctica, mainly resulting from ice melting. Figure: University of Stuttgart

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