Late last month, an alarming new study concluded that the glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica will melt ten times faster than previous estimates, raising ocean levels 10 feet in as little as a half century. But is it accurate? NASA has launched an urgent, five-year, $30 million study that will help scientists find out.
The official “mission,” known as Oceans Melting Greenland—yes, this is operation OMG—is designed to help scientists determine the melt-rate with unprecedented accuracy. “I barely got that name by the censors,” admits Joshua Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the project’s principal investigator. “But OMG is kind of the perfect expression for this line of research.”
Greenland is coated in nearly 700,000 square miles of ice, a reservoir of frozen water the size of California and Texas combined. If it all melted, the sea level would surge about 18 feet, devastating the world's coastal cities and creating a humanitarian disaster of unprecedented scale.
Scientists already know that this ice cover is thinning and that the planet’s thermostat is being pushed up by man-made carbon emissions. The last decade was the hottest on record, and each of the last three decades was hotter than the one before. In 2007 alone, according to a recent study, Greenland lost “the equivalent of two times all the ice in the Alps.”
What scientists still struggle to understand, however, is how the ocean and the glaciers interact, and what that interaction means for sea level rise. Existing global climate models consider only the the air and ice, and ignore what’s happening elsewhere.
Does warmer, saltier ocean water lap against the edges or undersides of the ice? And if so, what affect does that have on the integrity of the glaciers? Will the ice melt at a linear rate or an exponential one?
To answer these questions and more, NASA hopes to record the temperature and depth of the Greenland's surrounding sea, the scale of its glaciers, and the jagged line of the island’s many fjords. It began in August with the deployment of a retired fishing trawler capable of scanning the sea bed. Next year, a pair of jets will scan the surface of the glaciers and release probes into the surrounding water.
Last month’s shocking study of sea level rise was co-authored by James Hansen, NASA’s former chief climate scientist. He's a researcher with a reputation for being alarmist and accurate in roughly equal measure. The research is also unusual for another reason: it was released online, allowing it to be peer-reviewed in public rather than private.
It’s also an explicitly activist document. Hansen openly hopes to build urgency ahead of the international climate talks in Paris this December.
“We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century,” the authors write. “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”
While the first pieces of new data from Greenland will arrive in the fall, it will take significantly longer before scientists have enough to stress test Hansen's prediction. “Most glaciologists say, 10 feet by 2050 is not realistic,” Willis admits. But that's an opinion and Willis is in pursuit of facts.
His proposal predated Hansen's bombshell report, but he plans to frisk it for accuracy nonetheless. "Hansen’s number is something we’ll actually be able to test for," he said.