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Strange and Dramatic Thaw in Greenland May Be Cyclical

Take those breathless blog posts with a grain of science.

These NASA maps show how, within the space of four days earlier this month, Greenland's vast ice sheet faced degree of melting not seen in three decades of satellite observations as temperatures there rose. The image at left shows the ice sheet on July 8, with a large part of it experiencing no melting in summer, as is typical. By July 12, the surface of virtually the entire ice sheet was melting, a phenomenon not seen in three decades of satellite imaging. (NASA)


If you care about climate change, and recent studies indicate that members of Generation X are less than passionately following the issue, you probably saw the news that Greenland is underwent a massive summer thaw earlier this month. The entire ice sheet—two miles thick at its center—that covers the world's largest island experienced melting in mid-July over the course of four days. The ice melted even at Greenland's highest and coldest summit.

The Associate Press called it a "freak event" and "unprecedented." Dozens of outlets quickly filed breathless stories under headlines like "Greenland Melts in Front of NASA's Eyes" and "Greenland is Melting Literally". True, the data and satellite images released by NASA showed a rate of change more dramatic than any findings since they began measuring with satellite records. A NASA chief scientist was widely quoted with this alarming, but rather vague assertion:

When we see melt in places that we haven't seen before, at least in a long period of time, it makes you sit up and ask what's happening? It's a big signal, the meaning of which we're going to sort out for years to come.

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A bit further down the NASA report actually states, "Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time. But if we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome."

That tidbit mostly got buried in the hubbub, but it's important. As The New York Times' Andrew Revkin points out, such unrefined climate change reporting only enables "those whose passion or job is largely aimed at spreading doubt about science pointing to consequential greenhouse-driven warming."

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