It Rained at the Summit of Greenland's Ice Sheet for the First Time on Record

Greenland is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, which has consequences for the whole planet.
August 20, 2021, 2:58pm
Greenland is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, which has consequences for the whole planet.
Icebergs near Ilulissat, Greenland. Image: Ulrik Pedersen/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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Rain fell on the highest point of Greenland’s Ice Sheet, known as the Summit, for the first time in recorded history on Saturday. It was the latest anomaly in a series of heatwaves and melting events in the territory this summer that are linked to human-driven climate change.

Precipitation is not unusual at Greenland’s Summit, but it has taken the form of snow, not rain, since record-keeping began in 1950. But on August 14, it rained for several hours at the ice sheet’s zenith, which is located about 3,216 meters (10,551 feet) above sea level, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC), a polar research center managed by the University of Colorado Boulder.

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"There is no previous report of rainfall at this location,” according to the NSIDC. 

In addition to the unprecedented rainfall, air temperatures at the Summit remained above freezing for roughly nine hours last weekend, marking the latest recorded date in the year that conditions rose above the melting point. In addition to the rain that briefly fell at the Summit, clouds dropped an estimated seven billion tons of water precipitation across the ice sheet from August 14 to 16.

The warmer temperatures and rainfall triggered ice loss across the sheet, sparking a melting event that is seven times more voluminous than average at this point in August. This new period of ice loss comes just a few weeks after another major melting event in late July, that led to the loss of more than eight billion tons of meltwater in a single day—enough to cover the entire state of Florida with two inches of water.

Both anomalous melts were precipitated by heatwaves driven by low pressure centers over Baffin Island that pushed warm air and moisture north into Greenland, according to the NSIDC.

The Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world due to the climate crisis, which is caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels. Greenland is one of the most vulnerable and important regions affected by these anthropogenic changes. 

The Greenland Ice Sheet is melting faster than at any point over the past 12,000 years, which is both disrupting its local natural landscape and contributing to rising sea levels around the world. This accelerated ice loss from Greenland has already added about 0.4 inches to sea level rise since the 1990s, and could add anywhere from 3.1 to 10.6 inches more by 2100.