NASA Images Show Dramatic Changes To Greenland’s Glaciers In The Last 50 Years


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockSep 3 2019, 17:24 UTC

The glaciers of Greenland have dramatically changed over the last 47 years. NASA/Chris Shuman

NASA has released some incredible images of Greenland’s glaciers taken by Landsat satellites almost 50 years apart. The first image was taken in 1972 and has been released alongside a picture of the same area taken this year. The difference in ice coverage provides a sobering reminder of the impact the climate crisis is having on our planet.

The images focus on Greenland’s Sermilik Fjord located near the southern tip of the Arctic island. The older image was taken by Landsat 1 in September 1972 and shows white-blue ice cover stretching deep into the fjord. The most recent picture was taken by Landsat 8 on August 12, 2019. The extent of the glaciers is significantly reduced, but a striking feature is the change in color.


In the most recent picture, the glaciers have more brownish-gray tones. Researchers indicate that this is due to surface melting. This process concentrates dust and rock particles, leading to a darker shade on the frozen surface of these glaciers.

The Sermilik fjord in 1972 (top) and 2019 (bottom). NASA/ Chris Shuman

“There’s a lot more bare rock visible now, which used to be covered with ice,” glaciologist Christopher Shuman, from the University of Maryland, said in a statement. “And all these little glaciers are all getting slammed, as well as the bigger ones like Helheim, Fenris and Midgard. There are scores of examples of change just in this one area.”  

Helheim Glacier (pictured below) has retreated by 7.5 kilometers (4.7 miles) between the two pictures. The ice loss over the last 47 years is not just about length and colors. It’s also about the depth. In the close-up picture of Helheim, the cliff walls and rocky outcrops completely covered in 1972 are now starkly visible.

During the July heatwave, Greenland lost 217 billions tons of ice through melting, and about 90 percent of the surface of the Arctic island’s ice sheet melted between July 30 and August 2, 2019. In June, a dramatic picture shared by researchers showed just how serious the melt problem was.


And the future of Greenland’s glaciers looks quite bleak. Even in a scenario where we dramatically cut the level of greenhouse emissions we produce, the island will still lose up to a quarter of its ice by the end of the millennium, contributing to a direct increase in sea level rise of about 1.8 meters (6 feet). In more pessimistic scenarios, things are much, much worse.


Helheim Glacier in 1972 (top) and 2019 (bottom). NASA/ Chris Shuman