Facts vs Hysteria: Greenland’s Melting Glaciers


You sit down to Thanksgiving dinner looking forward to stuffing yourself with turkey and all the fixin’s but there is one problem – your dippy progressive HuffPo quoting sister-in-law won’t shut up. She drones on and on about how people are destroying mother earth and how the government needs to ban oil and coal so that greedy and irresponsible jerks can’t kill the planet. Ugh!

Where does she get this stuff?

From the mainstream media. Here are some recent headlines about glaciers in Greenland:


CBS News: “Melting Greenland Glacier Could Cause Sea Level to Rise For Decades”

The BBC: “Greenland Glacier Threatens Global Sea Levels”

USA Today: “Global Warming Rapidly Melts Massive Greenland Glacier”

Scientific American: “Once Stable Greenland Glaciers Face Rapid Melt”

and of course …

Huffington Post: “Rapidly Melting Glacier Will Raise Sea Levels For Decades To Come”


These stories popped up two weeks ago when a group of NASA funded researchers published their findings in the journal Science. The researchers examined satellite photos and laser measurements of Greenland’s Zachariae Isstrom glacier to determine how fast it is melting into the ocean. According to the lead researcher, Jeremie Mouginot of the University of California – Irvine, “the glacier has profoundly transformed in only 10 years.” His colleague, Eric Rignot, echoes Mouginot’s assessment, “the changes are staggering …”

Just how staggering are they? Every news story was quick to point out that if the glacier were to completely melt into the ocean it could raise sea level worldwide by 18” (0.5m). To make matters worse, Zachariae Isstrom isn’t the only glacier melting in Greenland. Its neighbor, Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden, is also melting and the two glaciers together threaten to raise sea level by 39″ (1m). In a fit of mass-irresponsible-journalism, the press neglected to mention that ALL the ice covering Greenland is melting. When Greenland finally becomes green again the melted ice will cause oceans to rise by 20 feet (6m). OMG! Your loudmouth sister-in-law is right, this is a disaster in the making. We’ve got to do something! Tax carbon, ban SUVs, jail anyone selling incandescent light bulbs!

So how long do we have before we’re all under water? If you can handle basic arithmetic and know how to do a Google search, skills the average journalist doesn’t possess, you can find out the answer. And that answer is – a very very long time.

HuffPo is correct, in a very exaggerated way. The melting glaciers will cause “sea level to rise for decades” … a helluvalot of decades. Zachariae Isstrom is losing ice at the rate of 4.5 billion tons per year, a very fast rate according to the researchers. At that rate it will cause sea level to rise by 0.00048” per year (0.012mm). That is not a misprint. The melting of Zachariae Isstrom only makes the ocean deeper by less than five ten thousandths of an inch every year. At its current “staggering” rate of meltage it will take this glacier 37,646 years to reach 18”. (An Excel spreadsheet can be found here for anyone who wants to check my math)

But of course sis-in-law will quickly point out that ALL of Greenland is melting. In fact it’s melting at the rate of 242 billion tons per year according to NASA’s GRACE satellite. That’s actually much faster than the “staggering” rate for Zachariae Isstrom, making one wonder what is so significant about this glacier. But even with the entire island losing ice, Greenland’s melting ice cap only adds 0.026” (0.67 mm) to sea level every year. It would take 38 years for the added water to raise the ocean by 1”. It would take seven centuries to reach the 18” level that is ruffling the feathers of the climate Chicken Littles. Why all the sturm und drang?

Now your know-it-all relative-by-marriage will pull out what she thinks is her trump card. Antarctica is also melting! … Ummmm, no. According to the latest IPCC report Antarctica is losing ice, resulting in yearly sea level rise of 0.01” (0.27mm), but at the beginning of this month a team of NASA scientists released a study refuting that claim. The NASA group found that Antarctica gained 82 billion tons of ice every year from 2003 to 2008 (the end of their study period).

Antarctica isn’t causing sea level to rise. It’s actually causing it to fall by 0.0087” (0.23mm) every year. Your sister-in-law is wrong. But then again, you already knew that.

Greenland and Antarctica hold 99% of the earth’s land-bound ice, so they can dramatically affect the depth of the ocean – but they aren’t. When you combine the melting and freezing ice from both areas you get a net loss of 160 billion tons each year. That is enough to raise sea level by 0.017” (0.44mm) every time the earth circles the sun. Should that rate stay constant it will take 59 years for Greenland and Antarctica to make the ocean 1” deeper. So 59 years from now, if you get bonked in the head and pass-out face first in this 1” of water there’s a slight chance you’ll drown. Otherwise this isn’t a problem.

Global warming isn’t going to harm people by causing disastrous changes in sea level. The changes happen incredibly slowly and people will easily adapt. But idiots like your sister-in-law want government regulations on fossil fuels to prevent a non-problem. These regulations could create dire consequences for people around the globe. Carbon based energy is cheap, reliable, and plentiful allowing more and more people to feed and take care of themselves. At least for now, alternative energy (wind and solar) is expensive and unreliable. Government mandated conversion from one to the other will result in economic disaster, especially for the poor.

These facts probably won’t make your sister-in-law clam-up, so you can end the debate by asking her a question: Why do progressives hate poor people?

Wayne Middlesteadt is the author of Five Ways to Beat the Market and The Golden Age of Distance Running.

About Author

Wayne Middlesteadt is a 1986 graduate of Georgia Tech and has an MBA from Georgia State University. Currently working as a financial writer and track and field historian, his latest book is Five Ways To Beat The Market.