New Brunswick, N.J. (Dec. 23, 2019) – The southern Greenland Ice Sheet may experience precipitous melting this century due to a much smaller temperature increase than scientists thought would be required, according to a Rutgers co-authored study.

The global sea level may rise by about 6 feet if the southern portion of the vast ice sheet melts as a result of climate change, notes the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, which included a researcher at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, looked at tiny plankton-like fossils to reconstruct temperatures over hundreds of thousands of years.

Sea-level rise threatens low-lying coastal cities, communities and islands in New Jersey, New York and across the planet. Many areas face permanent inundation in the 21st century along with greater flooding during hurricanes and other storms.  

“Previously, it was argued that as long as we keep the warming around Greenland below 1.6 degrees Celsius (2.9 degrees Fahrenheit), Greenland Ice Sheet melting would be minimal,” said co-author Yair Rosenthal, a distinguished professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Rutgers–New Brunswick. “We showed there is no such threshold and the melting will occur at a much lower temperature increase.”

The study suggests that a temperature about 0.8 degrees Celsius (about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than today – within the range of projections for global warming by 2100 – caused the southern Greenland Ice Sheet to disintegrate between 424,000 and 374,000 years ago. The research was led by scientists at the University of Bergen in Norway.

The international 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change seeks to keep this century’s temperature increase well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times, with a goal of limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). But over a long time that might not be sufficient to prevent melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet as shown in this study.

The study: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/12/17/1911902116

Professor Rosenthal is available to comment at rosentha@marine.rutgers.edu

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