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Moving at the Speed of Arctic Ice

Moving at the Speed of Arctic Ice

Time-lapses taken from space can help track how Earth’s polar regions are changing, watching as glaciers retreat and accelerate, and ice sheets melt over decades.

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Using our long data record and a new computer program, we can watch Alaskan glaciers shift and flow every year since 1972. Columbia Glacier, which was relatively stable in the 1970s, has since retreated rapidly as the climate continues to warm.

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The Malaspina Glacier has pulsed and spread and pulsed again. The flashes and imperfect frames in these time-lapses result from the need for cloud-free images from each year, and the technology limitations of the early generation satellites.

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In Greenland, glaciers are also reacting to the warming climate. Glaciers are essentially frozen rivers, flowing across land. As they get warmer, they flow faster and lose more ice to the ocean. On average, glaciers in Greenland have retreated about 3 miles between 1985 and 2018. The amount of ice loss was fairly consistent for the first 15 years of the record, but started increasing around 2000.

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Warmer temperatures also affect Greenland farther inland, where the surface of ice sheets and glaciers melts, forming lakes that can be up to 3 miles across. Over the last 20 years, the number of meltwater lakes forming in Greenland increased 27% and appeared at higher elevations, where temperatures were previously too cold for melt.

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Whether they’re studying how ice flows into the water, or how water pools atop ice, scientists are investigating some of the many aspects of how climate affects Earth’s polar regions. 

For more information, visit climate.nasa.gov.

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