Greenland's glaciers are retreating quickly, and a new study shows in historical terms just how quickly: over the past century, at least twice as fast as any other time in the past 9,500 years. The study also provides new evidence for just how sensitive glaciers are to temperature, showing that they responded to past abrupt cooling and warming periods, some of which might have lasted only decades.
To track how glaciers grew and shrank over time, the scientists extracted sediment cores from a glacier-fed lake that provided the first continuous observation of glacier change in southeastern Greenland. They then compared the results to similar rare cores from Iceland and Canada's Baffin Island for a regional view.
"Two things are happening," said study co-author William D'Andrea, a paleoclimatologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "One is you have a very gradual decrease in the amount of sunlight hitting high latitudes in the summer. If that were the only thing happening, we would expect these glaciers to very slowly be creeping forward, forward, forward. But then we come along and start burning fossil fuels and adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and glaciers that would still be growing start to melt back because summer temperatures are warmer."