KU scientist sounds alarm on melting glaciers

Prof. Dr. Pannirselvam Kanagaratnam Ph.D., a Kansas University research assistant professor with KU's Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, who is featured in today's issue of Science Magazine, explained that the Greenland ice sheet is melting at a much faster rate than what researchers had initially estimated.

New findings by researchers at Kansas University and NASA should keep people up at night worried about the state of the planet, Vicki Arroyo said.

“This doesn’t bode well for the future looking anything like what is recognizable to us now,” said Arroyo, director of policy analysis with the independent nonprofit Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Va.

The Greenland ice sheets are dropping ice into the ocean at more than double the rate of a decade ago, according to the research of Pannir Kanagaratnam, of KU’s Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, and Eric Rignot, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Their findings are covered in the current issue of the journal Science.

“This is very interesting, very important work,” said Richard Alley, a professor in the geosciences department at Pennsylvania State University.

Researchers have long studied what is going on with the glaciers of Greenland, a mass that can be envisioned as a big ice cube.

“If you melt Greenland, it would raise sea level 23 feet,” Alley said. “If humans are going to make wise decisions, we need to know whether it’s going to happen or not.”

To paint a picture of how much of Greenland’s glacial ice has dripped into the ocean, Kanagaratnam said the volume of the dumping in 1996 was roughly equal to 90 times the water consumed by the city of Los Angeles. In 2005, the dissipation was equal to 225 times the water consumed by Los Angeles.

The dissipation of the glacier ice into the ocean contributes to the rise in sea levels. In 1996, the increase in sea level from Greenland’s ice sheets was about 0.2 millimeters.

“It could be more than that now,” Kanagaratnam said.

Rignot and Kanagaratnam used radar and satellites to conduct the research. Kanagaratnam said he wasn’t yet sure whether the dramatic dissipation of the glaciers into the ocean is a short- or long-term occurrence.

“If it continues at the rate that it is now, it is definitely a cause for alarm,” he said.

Kanagaratnam said scientists didn’t know where the point of no return would be.

There is a strong correlation between carbon dioxide emissions, rising temperatures and glacier melting, he said.

“We should do what we can to reduce emissions,” Kanagaratnam said.

For Arroyo, the research findings should spur action.

The Pew Center has called for a program to cap emissions and curb the release of greenhouse gases, increase efficiency in buildings and electricity generation and increase participation by the United States in international negotiations aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Arroyo said stalling the issue would only allow it to grow and make it more difficult to tackle in the future.

“The sooner we start, the better we can craft policy to enable people to make changes over time,” she said.