Why Greenland's rapid ice melt could pose climate threat to San Francisco Bay

Last week rain, not snow, fell on Greenland's highest summit for the first time on record -- An indication of rising temperatures.

ByTim Didion & Spencer Christian KGO logo
Thursday, August 26, 2021
Greenland's rapid ice melt poses threat to SF Bay, experts say
Researchers believe a climate threat in Greenland, could ultimately become a threat to the San Francisco Bay.

PASADENA, Calif. (KGO) -- With its rugged glaciers, there's no confusing the coast of Greenland with the shoreline of San Francisco Bay.

But researchers believe a climate threat there, could ultimately become a threat here.

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"Greenland has lost 3 trillion tons of ice in 15 years, that's enough to raise global sea levels, the entire planet by a centimeter, or half an inch," says Josh Willis, Ph.D., of the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

Now, Willis and a team from NASA-JPL are gathering data from Greenland trying to answer an unnerving question. How much more ice will melt and how quickly?

The answers could have a direct effect on how we plan for tidal rise in the San Francisco Bay.

The mission is called OMG, for Oceans Melting Greenland.

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For the last several years, Willis and his colleagues have been dropping sensors around the perimeters of the area's massive coastline.

The goal is to measure the stunning amounts of water that are being flushed out of the glaciers, as they come in contact with warming ocean waters.

"We kind of think of Greenland's ice sheet as a big ice cube that's melting under a hair dryer, but really it's more like this ice is getting flushed off of the ice sheet in these huge rivers of ice, right into the ocean," Willis explains.

And it's coming as the area is experiencing a year of extreme ice melt. Fellow NASA-JPL researcher Eric Rignot, Ph.D., says the shifting weight is so immense it can actually cause subtle changes in the earth's crust.

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"Making sea level rise far away, particularly California and San Francisco, we are affected by what's happening in Greenland and Antarctica even though it's far away," says Rignot.

Still, how much the melt will effect sea level rise, and how quickly, are key unknowns. They could drive everything from how we plan to protect our current Bay shoreline, to what areas will still be viable in the future.

"That should scare you as much as the prospect of a lot of melting. Because it means we really don't know how much sea level rise to prepare for from Greenland. We just know it's going to be a lot. Is it going to be a whole lot or just a little lot," says Willis.

One unsettling note -- Last week rain, not snow, fell on Greenland's highest summit for the first time on record. An indication of the rising temperatures there.