New NASA Tool Tells You Exactly Which Melting Glaciers are Your Biggest Threats

NASA's JPL developed a tool that shows coastal residents how distant glaciers from Greenland and Antarctica can impact local sea levels.
Shelby Rogers
Torres Del Paine in PatagoniaPixabay  

It's no secret that coastal areas are in the 'danger zone' when it comes to rising sea levels, but one new tool from NASA details exactly which melting glaciers pose the biggest threat. 

The tool stems from seemingly counter-intuitive research done within recent years: as sea levels rise, they won't do so evenly across the globe. 

Eric Larour, Erik Ivins and Surendra Adhikari of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed the tool and solidified an assumption made by previous research. Different cities should fear the melting of different large glaciers. 

"It tells you what is the rate of increase of sea level in that city with respect to the rate of change of ice masses everywhere in the world," Larour said of the new tool his team created.

The interactive map partially explains the reason why New York City has more to fear than other coastal areas. Due to the giant scale of ice masses and the rate at which they're melting, there are gravitational effects on the earth. Recent research even noted that this rapid melting could have effects on Earth's rotation itself. 


This unique effect on rotations will leave behind a "fingerprint" all depending on when and where parts of Greenland or Antartica's glaciers slip into the sea. 

"As ice sheets and glaciers undergo climate-related melting, they alter Earth’s gravity field, resulting in sea level changes that aren’t uniform around the globe," NASA explained in a statement. "For example, when a glacier loses ice mass, its gravitational attraction is reduced. Ocean waters nearby move away, causing sea level to rise faster far away from the glacier. The resulting pattern of sea level change is known as a sea level fingerprint."

So, from a counterintuitive perspective, one of the smartest things according to this report would be living closer to a larger melting ice mass rather than distancing yourself from it, the researchers noted. 

"If you are close enough, then the effect of ice loss will be a sea level drop, not sea level rise," said Adhikari. The team said the effect is immediate across the globe.

The program serves as a visual representation that challenges an older understanding of glacial melting. And, according to researchers outside of the project, this new information will prove more useful in the event of unceasingly high melting rates. 

New NASA Tool Tells You Exactly Which Melting Glaciers are Your Biggest Threats
Sea level rise calculated by changes in Greenland, Antartica, and other continental ice caps. Source: NASA/UCI

"So far, sea level fingerprints have been used in an ice-centred way, for instance to compute how a given amount of melt from a specific ice source will affect sea level change worldwide," said Riccardo Riva, a researcher at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Riva specializes in sea level research and recently spoke with the Washington Post about the subject. 

"The authors are reversing the viewpoint, examining how much a certain location is affected by ice melt from different ice sources, and this provides a much better risk assessment by highlighting the ice sources that will have the largest impact."

The Three Biggest Glacial Threats

Glaciers are melting at a significantly faster pace than in previous decades. Researchers haven't pinpointed precisely why -- some theorize warmer oceanic currents, others blame rising atmospheric temperatures rather than warmer oceans. Regardless, the Earth is getting warmer and large expanses of ice are rapidly disappearing.

For example, Glacier National Park sits along the U.S.-Canada border and largely in the state of Montana. When President William Howard Taft founded the park in 1910, there were over 150 glaciers documented. Since that time, that number has shrunk to just 30 glaciers and those remaining are now two-thirds their original size. 

And that only includes 'smaller' glaciers in the United States. 

While smaller glacier meltings certainly contribute their own troubles, there are three key glaciers that will impact coastal cities the most. They all stem from northern Greenland -- Jakobshavn glacier, Petermann glacier, and Zachariae glacier. 

NASA's tool shows that Petermann serves as the biggest threat to New York despite being farther away. However, the tool also shows that in a worst-case scenario, New York isn't the one feeling the biggest effects of the ice loss from these three massive glaciers. 

Vacation and tourist destinations like Miami and Rio de Janeiro see most of the change, at 95 percent and 124 percent respectively. 

Want to see how your city or favorite coastal area stack up? Click here for the link to the JPL's project. 

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