For Sea Level, Some Glaciers Affect your City More than Others

November 16, 2017

Important concept – Ice sheets are so massive, that they create their own gravitational field, pulling ocean water towards them.
As they melt, that field diminishes, so, for instance, as Greenland’s ice sheet becomes less massive, sea level around Greenland may actually decline – while cities far away will see a greater rise.

NASA explains.

Washington Post:

New York City has plenty to worry about from sea level rise. But according to a new study by NASA researchers, it should worry specifically about two major glacier systems in Greenland’s northeast and northwest — but not so much about other parts of the vast northern ice sheet.

The research draws on a curious and counterintuitive insight that sea level researchers have emphasized in recent years: As ocean levels rise around the globe, they will not do so evenly. Rather, because of the enormous scale of the ice masses that are melting and feeding the oceans, there will be gravitational effects and even subtle effects on the crust and rotation of the Earth. This, in turn, will leave behind a particular “fingerprint” of sea level rise, depending on when and precisely which parts of Greenland or Antarctica collapse.

“It tells you what is the rate of increase of sea level in that city with respect to the rate of change of ice masses everywhere in the world,” Larour said of the new tool his team created.

The research was published in Science Advances, accompanied by an online feature that allows you to choose from among 293 coastal cities and see how certain ice masses could affect them if the ice enters the ocean. The scientists also released a video that captures some of how it works.

The upshot is that New York needs to worry about certain parts of Greenland collapsing, but not so much others. Sydney, however, needs to worry about the loss of particular sectors of Antarctica — the ones farther away from it — and not so much about the ones nearer. And so on.

This is the case because sea level actually decreases near a large ice body that loses mass, because that mass no longer exerts the same gravitational pull on the ocean, which accordingly shifts farther away. This means that from a sea level rise perspective, one of the safest things is to live close to a large ice mass that is melting.

“If you are close enough, then the effect of ice loss will be a sea level drop, not sea level rise,” said Adhikari. The effect is immediate across the globe.

Indeed, the research shows that for cities like Oslo and Reykjavik, which are close to Greenland, a collapse of many of the ice sheet’s key sectors would lower, not raise, the local sea level. (These places have more to fear from ice loss in Antarctica, even though it is much farther away.)

Here’s a figure from the researchers showing which parts of Greenland threaten New York the most.


As you can see, the risk is mainly from the northern parts of Greenland and especially from the ice sheet’s northeast.

This is revealing because while Greenland has hundreds of glaciers, three in particular are known to pose the greatest sea level risk because of their size and, if they collapse, how they could allow the ocean to reach deep into the remaining ice sheet, continually driving more ice loss. The three most threatening by far are Jakobshavn glacier on Greenland’s central western coast, Petermann glacier in its far northwest and Zachariae glacier in the far northeast. Zachariae is part of a massive feature known as the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream, which reaches all the way to the center of the ice sheet and through which fully 12 percent of Greenland’s total ice flows.

The new research shows that Petermann, and especially the northeast ice stream, are a far bigger threat to New York than Jakobshavn is.

In a high-end global warming scenario run out for 200 years, the study reported, Petermann glacier would cause 3.23 inches of globally averaged sea level rise, the northeast ice stream would cause 4.17 inches, and Jakobshavn would cause 1.73 inches. Of this total, New York would see two inches of rise from Petermann, 2.83 inches from the Northeast ice stream and just 0.6 inches from Jakobshavn.

This all really matters because in the real world, glaciers are melting at very different rates. Jakobshavn is the biggest ice loser from Greenland and is beating a very rapid retreat at the moment. Zachariae is starting to lose ice and looking increasingly worrisome, but still nothing like Jakobshavn. Petermann is holding up the best, for now, though it has lost large parts of the floating ice shelf that stabilizes it and holds it in place.

In no case does New York get the full effect of ice loss from any part of Greenland — it’s still far too close to the ice sheet. But Miami gets 95 percent of the globe’s total sea level rise from the northeast ice stream, while distant Rio de Janeiro gets 124 percent, or over five inches in the scenario above.

The same goes for Antarctica — its melting, too, will have differential effects around the world. And that matters even more because the ice masses that could be lost are considerably larger than in Greenland. Antarctica, like Greenland, is melting at different rates. Substantial ice loss is already happening in west Antarctica and in the Antarctic peninsula. Meanwhile, although scientists are watching the far larger eastern Antarctica carefully, so far it’s not contributing nearly as much to sea level rise.

Farther away — like, say, New York — Antarctic loss is a big deal. Research has shown that if west Antarctica collapses, the U.S. East Coast would see more than the average global sea level rise.

The research represents a new departure in the science of sea level “fingerprinting,” said Riccardo Riva, a researcher who studies sea level at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and who was not involved in the work.

“So far, sea level fingerprints have been used in an ice-centered way, for instance to compute how a given amount of melt from a specific ice source will affect sea level change worldwide,” said Riva. “The authors are reversing the viewpoint, examining how much a certain location is affected by ice melt from different ice sources, and this provides a much better risk assessment by highlighting the ice sources that will have the largest impact.”




12 Responses to “For Sea Level, Some Glaciers Affect your City More than Others”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    What’s the keyword term for this aspect of SLR?

    I know how to look up *isostatic rebound* (aka glacial rebound), *subsidence*, *thermal expansion*, etc., but I don’t know the google-able term of art for this phenomenon.

  2. Jerry Falwel Says:

    Actual ocean rise trend per NOAA actual data 3 inches in the next 100 years. The rest is models and mostly BS as it was hotter than today in 1000 AD and the world did not end or flood.

  3. Kiwiiano Says:

    Hang on…. Olso has more to worry about from Antarctica? Then we have to take into account global ice cap melting rather than specifically one or other. That certainly complicates the issue! It’s the various rates of melting that matters in the long run. Of course we perhaps should all say that ultimately anything below, say, 100m is suspect and either move above or at less refuse to buy below that contour.

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