NASA scientists saving California beaches by turning to Greenland

MALIBU, Calif. — Flying above the breathtaking beaches of California’s Pacific Coast, you don’t have to be a scientist to notice the change.

From Malibu to Dana Point to San Clemente, shorelines are disappearing before our very eyes.


What You Need To Know

  • Five times the size of California, Greenland is the world’s largest island with about 80% covered in ice
  • Josh Willis and his team at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab have been keeping a watchful eye on Greenland’s melting glaciers
  • Melt water from the ice rises up from the bottom, eating away the glacier from below
  • Satellites are quickly emerging as one of the most effective tools in the fight against global warming

But to understand what’s happening here, you first need to travel more than 3,500 miles to Greenland — inside the arctic circle.

Five times the size of California, Greenland is the world’s largest island and about 80% covered in ice. It’s also the biggest single contributor to the global rise of sea levels.

“Greenland has enough ice to raise sea levels by 25 feet if it were all to melt today,” said scientist Josh Willis. “The question is, how fast is that going to happen?”

Willis and his team at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab have been keeping a watchful eye on Greenland’s melting glaciers, using satellite technology to monitor ice loss.

To find out exactly what’s happening in the water surrounding these glaciers, Willis has been flying an old, tricked-out DC-3 plane, dropping hundreds of probes around the edge of the island.

“The cylinders fall with a little parachute, they land on the water and they actually send data back in real-time so that we can see what the water temperatures are doing down below,” Willis said.

What Willis found is that it’s not just that these glaciers are melting, it’s how that’s happening that poses the biggest threat.

As it turns out, melt water from the ice rises up from the bottom, eating away the glacier from below. As a result, these glaciers are disappearing six or seven times faster today than they did only 25 years ago. And that’s a concern not just for Greenland, but also for coastal areas everywhere.

“The oceans connect all of us, and that means that when ice melts in Greenland, sea level rises in Los Angeles and all around the planet,” Willis said.

Satellites are quickly emerging as one of the most effective tools in the fight against global warming, exposing greenhouse gas emissions and offering insights into the planet’s changing surface.

It’s not just NASA. Private companies such as San Francisco-based Planet are getting in on the action, launching hundreds of satellites no bigger than a shoebox that can scan the entire globe from top to bottom.

With the help of NASA’s technology, Willis has been able to zero in on vulnerable areas and monitor just how fast the glaciers are melting.

How this will affect sea level rise or how quickly is still unclear. But one thing is for sure: Time is running out.

“There’s a certain amount of climate change that we are stuck with,” Willis said. “We’re not going to lower sea levels or rebuild ice sheets anytime in our lifetime or our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes. But we do have an opportunity to avoid making it a whole lot worse.”

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NASA scientists saving California beaches by turning to Greenland