Scientists are already worried about the effects of climate change on earth's existing glaciers and ice shelves which are threatening to break off or melt; however, such occurrences now seem tame when compared with the new type of ice loss that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration discovered in Greenland.
The new type of ice loss, which is called a "solitary wave," happened in 2012 when one of Greenland's hottest summers was recorded.
According to NASA, Greenland loses about 11 billion tons of ice each year beginning in the 2000s but a mysterious melting process caused the Rink Glacier to lose an additional 6.7 gigatons in 2012. What is more alarming is that the force of the solitary wave was so strong, scientists say it reshaped the bedrock underneath Rink glacier when it passed by.
What Happened In The Summer Of 2012
According to scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology, the solitary wave was triggered in June 2012 and moved through August at a speed of 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) per month, then accelerated to 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) in September. The wave then continued to flow through the next four months until it reached the sea, but no one detected that such an event occurred because it all happened underneath the ice.
"You could literally be standing there and you would not see any indication of the wave. You would not see cracks or other unique surface features," JPL scientist and study co-author Eric Larour said.
The surge of melted water was so strong that it was equivalent in mass to 18,000 Empire State buildings. Watch the animation of the 2012 solitary wave below.
How The Surge Happened
The scientists noted that, prior to the surge, the huge basin in Greenland's interior held more water than usual so they hypothesized that the water must have created new channels, such as temporary rivers or lakes in order to drain into the ocean.
"We know for sure that the triggering mechanism was the surface melting of snow and ice, but we do not fully understand the complex array of processes that generate solitary waves," JPL scientist and study lead author Surendra Adhikari said.
Since the wave was so huge, they also believe that many previously known ice melt processes combined to make it happen. Aside from this, new ice and meltwater were quick to replace the ones that had been transported, leading to the massive loss of ice.
According to the scientists, a smaller wave already occurred during the hot summer of 2010 and, though unprecedented, we can expect it to occur again if the climate continues to warm and melt the ice.