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The Decline of North Greenland Ice Shelves and Its Consequences on Sea Level Rise

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The vast ice shelves of northern Greenland have long been considered stable, playing a crucial role in preventing glaciers from flowing into the sea and contributing to sea level rise. However, recent scientific research indicates a significant decline in these ice shelves, with potentially dire consequences for our planet. This article delves into the findings of multiple studies and explores the implications of the loss of North Greenland ice shelves on sea level rise.

Contribution of the Greenland Ice Sheet to sea level over the next millennium

The Loss of North Greenland Ice Shelves

Over the past half-century, rising temperatures have caused the ice shelves in North Greenland to lose more than a third of their volume, equivalent to approximately 400 billion tons of floating ice. These ice shelves, which act as stoppers for glaciers, have seen a widespread decrease in their mass due to the warming of the ocean. The study, published in Nature Communications, utilized satellite images and climate modeling to reveal that three of the ice shelves in North Greenland have completely collapsed, while the remaining five have experienced significant losses in mass.

Implications for Sea Level Rise

The decline of North Greenland ice shelves is a cause for concern as the Greenland ice sheet is the second-largest contributor to global sea level rise. Between 2006 and 2018, it was responsible for approximately 17% of observed sea level rise. If the remaining ice shelves were to shatter, it could result in accelerated sea level rise, leaving only the Southern Hemisphere with major ice shelves. This prospect highlights the vulnerability of the Greenland ice sheet to planetary warming and the potential for grave future implications.

Mechanisms of Ice Shelf Decline

The research indicates that oceanic control plays a significant role in the weakening of North Greenland ice shelves. An increase in ocean potential temperature coincides with the observed melting, suggesting a strong connection between oceanic conditions and ice shelf changes. Basal melting, the melting of ice from underneath, is also identified as a crucial factor in thinning the ice shelves. As the shelves become thinner, they become more susceptible to fracturing and unstable retreat, potentially leading to ice shelf collapse and increased sea level rise.

Accelerated Melting in a Warming World

Glaciers and ice sheets are highly sensitive to global temperature increases, particularly in the oceans, which absorb 90% of the planet’s warming. The combination of warmer air and warmer ocean water intensifies the melting of ice. Recent projections indicate that Earth is heading towards record-breaking heat, with the next five years forecasted to be the hottest on record. This trend further emphasizes the vulnerability of the Greenland ice sheet and the urgent need to address climate change.

The Case of Zachariæ Isstrøm

The collapse of Zachariæ Isstrøm is a striking example of the consequences of ice shelf decline. Between 2003 and 2012, the floating ice tongue of Zachariæ Isstrøm disintegrated, resulting in the loss of 105 billion tons of mass. This accelerated the glacier’s flow into the ocean, contributing to rising sea levels. The detachment of large icebergs and the increased ice discharge from Zachariæ Isstrøm serve as compelling evidence of the impact of ice shelf decline on sea level rise.

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The Last Remaining Ice Shelves

Only five large ice shelves remain in North Greenland, with Petermann, Ryder, and 79 North being the most significant. The potential melting of these ice shelves could contribute to a sea level rise of approximately 3.6 feet. The retreat of grounding lines, the point where the floating shelf ends and the grounded glacier begins, is a crucial indicator of ice shelf weakening. The retreat of grounding lines and increased ice discharge highlight the vulnerability of the remaining ice shelves in North Greenland.

The Threat to Petermann and Ryder

Petermann and Ryder, two major ice shelves in North Greenland, face significant threats due to ice shelf decline. Petermann, the largest ice shelf in Greenland, has experienced rainfall and increased meltwater runoff, further compromising its stability. The presence of warm Atlantic water beneath the ice shelf has carved large open spaces, contributing to the rapid retreat of the grounding line. The location of Petermann at the seaward end of a deep sub-ice canyon raises concerns about the potential penetration of ocean water into the heart of the Greenland ice sheet.

Ryder, a remote glacier flowing towards the North Pole, has witnessed the farthest retreat of its grounding line among all northern Greenland glaciers with remaining ice shelves. The retreat of the grounding line inland indicates a weakening ice shelf system. The loss of Ryder could result in a sea level rise of approximately 5 inches worldwide.

The Importance of 79 North

79 North, the largest remaining ice shelf in Greenland, has historically been considered stable due to its anchoring on small islands and ice rises. However, recent observations indicate the presence of warm Atlantic water at the base of 79 North, creating a deep channel beneath the ice shelf near the grounding line. The breakage of a large iceberg and the formation of cracks pointing inward towards the center of the glacier suggest the onset of a major retreat phase. The potential acceleration of 79 North’s flow to the sea could significantly contribute to sea level rise.

The Future of Greenland’s Ice Shelves

The findings of these studies point to a troubling future for Greenland’s ice shelves. The ongoing decline and potential collapse of the remaining ice shelves could lead to accelerated sea level rise. As the ice shelves weaken and retreat, their role as barriers to glacier flow diminishes, allowing more ice to enter the ocean. The consequences of this scenario extend beyond Greenland, with global sea levels at risk of significant increase.


The loss of North Greenland ice shelves highlights the urgent need to address climate change and its impact on our planet. The decline of these ice shelves, driven by rising temperatures and oceanic control, poses a direct threat to sea level rise. The potential collapse of the remaining ice shelves in North Greenland could have far-reaching consequences for coastal communities worldwide. As we navigate the challenges of a warming world, it is crucial to prioritize sustainable practices and mitigate the effects of climate change to protect our environment and future generations.


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