Planet in Peril: Near-Record Hot July and Greenland Ice Sheet Past the Tipping Point

In this image taken on Thursday Aug.1, 2019 large rivers of melting water form on an ice sheet in western Greenland and drain into moulin holes that empty into the ocean from underneath the ice. (Photo via Caspar Haarløv, Into the Ice via AP)

(CN) — Plenty of climate news Thursday but none of it is good for planet Earth or humanity: July 2020 was the second warmest July on record, the Arctic has less ice this summer than in 42 years of record-keeping, and Greenland’s ice sheet has melted so badly that even if global warming ended today, it would keep melting until it vanishes.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported all six of the hottest Julys on record have occurred in the last six years — with July 2019 being the all-time hottest — while 9 of the 10 warmest Julys ever recorded have happened since 2010.

Last month marked the 427th consecutive month where average global temperatures were above the 20th-century average. 

“The July 2020 global land and ocean surface temperature was 1.66 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average of 60.4 degrees, tying with 2016 as the second-highest July temperature in the 141-year record,” NOAA said in its assessment of the July global climate. 

Equally concerning, was the Arctic ice extent was the smallest in the 42 years the federal agency has been keeping records, shrinking by 120,000 since July 2019 when another record for the smallest ice extent in the region was set. The area now devoid of ice is roughly the size of Vietnam or the state of New Mexico.

The ice extent covered 849,000 square miles in July, down 23% from the average ice extent from 1981-2010.

“The 10 smallest July Arctic sea ice extents have occurred since 2007,” NOAA said. 

In Greenland, meanwhile, 40 years of satellite data reveal an alarming truth: the glaciers on the island have melted so much they’re past the point of no return.

The data, published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications Earth and Environment, mean that Greenland’s ice sheet has reached a tipping point where snowfall that replenishes the ice sheet annually cannot keep up with the rate of melting.

“We’ve been looking at these remote sensing observations to study how ice discharge and accumulation have varied,” said Michalea King, lead author of the study and a researcher at The Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, said in a statement accompanying the study. “And what we’ve found is that the ice that’s discharging into the ocean is far surpassing the snow that’s accumulating on the surface of the ice sheet.”

The researchers looked at 40 years of monthly satellite data from some 200 glaciers draining into the ocean around Greenland. They found that during the 1980s and 1990s, the gains from snowfall and the losses from melting were more or less in balance. The level of melting during even that period is staggering though — some 450 billion tons of ice melted into the ocean every year, though that was typically replaced by snowfall.

Since around 2000, however, the rate of melting has steadily increased to about 500 billion tons lost annually, while the snowfall has not increased. And over the last decade, the rate of melting has stayed the same — meaning the ice sheet is losing ice more rapidly than it’s being replenished.

The loss of Greenland’s ice sheet will have perilous results for the entire planet. Last year alone, enough ice melted or broke off the ice sheet to cause Earth’s sea levels to rise by nearly a tenth of an inch in just two months.

Thursday’s dire climate news also included drought. The American Southwest in particular has been battered by high temperatures and low rainfall in recent months, compounding problems of drought in the Colorado River Basin. 

“Southern Utah and western Colorado had severe and extreme drought expand this week along with moderate drought in northeast Utah and northwest Colorado,” the U.S. Drought Monitor said in a report published Thursday. “Extreme drought was also expanded over southeast Nevada.”

The monitor shows that 63% of the American West is experiencing at least moderate drought, with 8 percent of that land area in extreme drought. There were no areas that were qualified as extreme drought at the start of the calendar year and only 18 percent of the American West was in any kind of drought when 2020 began. 

The extreme drought is currently concentrated on the border of New Mexico and Colorado; the border between Utah and Nevada and the California-Oregon border. 

Much of the drought is generally aligned throughout the Colorado River Basin, particularly troubling as the Colorado River serves as a major source of drinking water and irrigation for several states in the Southwest. 

The Bureau of Land Management announced Lake Powell and Lake Mead — both on the Colorado River — have dipped slightly, meaning seven states could be receiving news of slight reductions in their water allocations for the coming year. 

Despite the bad news, the dip in the reservoirs is not expected to trigger mandatory cuts to Arizona and Nevada, giving states time to prepare. 

The Colorado River supplies water to Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Mexico.

Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix are all major metropolitan areas that are in the midst of rapid growth that rely on the waters of the Colorado River. 

The river supplies water to farms producing 15% of total U.S. crop output and 13% of its livestock production.

But a lack of rainfall in the region means more water is being drawn from the river than is going into it. Last year, Arizona, California and Nevada agreed to a drought contingency plan that incorporated voluntary cuts to prevent the two major reservoirs from dropping so low that they are unable to deliver water to certain farms and cities. 

For the first time, Nevada and Arizona didn’t receive their full share of water last year after the Bureau of Reclamation projected Lake Mead would dip to 1,089 feet. The impact was minimal, however, and didn’t trickle down to water users. Mexico also agreed to cuts.

In addition to the lack of rainfall, Arizona and New Mexico continue to experience heatwaves with temperatures in excess of averages by about 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. 

 Unfortunately, there is no relief in sight. 

Forecasts call for above-average temperatures to persist in the Southwest while expanding to cover much of the American West. 

“Temperatures during this time should be well above normal over the West, with departures of 6-9 degrees above normal,” said Brian Fuchs with the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

California is girding for a heatwave and may also consider shutting off power in areas of the state if the rising temperatures are accompanied by high wind events. 

Forecasts indicate below-normal precipitation in much of the lower 48 states, including those in the West.

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