The coastline of Prince Edward Island. PHOTO: ArtTower/Pixaby

In 2018, when Xiquan (Xander) Wang arrived on Prince Edward Island — a small, low-lying province surrounded by water — he recognized that rising sea levels were a danger to his new home. 

“In PEI, the rising sea levels are a great threat to the community,” said Wang, an associate professor at the University of Prince Edward Island’s School of Climate Change and Adaptation. 

To understand future changes to sea levels, Wang said there is a need to acknowledge that a major factor is melting ice sheets, particularly that of Greenland — the second-largest ice sheet in the world and one that is quickly disappearing.

As Wang became more familiar with the issue, he understood how large a problem this could potentially be. Climate change has affected countless different places in the world, but the melting of ice sheets in the polar regions can be especially harmful.

Melting ice sheets, especially Greenland’s, have the ability to cause significant problems to coastal regions. The melt causes sea levels to rise and haunt coastlines like PEI. 

But Wang believes there are solutions available that can lead to the stabilization of the Greenland ice sheet in order to keep coastal regions safe.

Greenland’s melting and sea levels are rising

Greenland, the world’s largest island and northernmost territory, is the landmark site for scientific monitoring of climate change’s effect on ice sheet melt. At the COP26 summit in Scotland, officials talked about the effects of climate change on Greenland and how, by working with Greenland’s government, plans are being made to reduce our impacts and lead a brighter future.

The Greenland ice sheet takes up more than 75 per cent of the country, covering more than 1.5 million kilometres, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center1. Hundreds of billions of tonnes of ice melt off it each year. 

Rising sea levels are a consequence of climate change globally, but it is of most concern within island nations. PEI is losing 28 centimeters of land each year2, and, with the current rate of the sea levels rising, that is only due to increase.

“We want to look at if it is possible to… take some active action, or immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases. [Then] is it possible to stabilize the Greenland ice sheet?” said Wang.

Associate professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, Xander Wang. PHOTO: Courtesy of Xander Wang

Stabilizing the Greenland ice sheet

When researching the Greenland ice sheet, Wang and his team focused on core ideas, including the amount of emissions released by humans, and how these varying amounts of greenhouse gases will affect the melting rate.

“That is the point we want to look at, and that is why we have different efficiency areas of greenhouse gases. We look at high emission, low emission and middle emission to see what will happen, and if there is a possibility to stabilize through the low-emission areas.”

These different emission areas, known as Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), are efficiency scenarios that have been defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

There are several different RCPs concepts created by the intergovernmental panel, each focused on different levels of emissions in the future. RCP 8.6 produces the highest amount of greenhouse gases, while RCP 2.6 produces the lowest, making it the safest option in terms of combating global warming.

“Other scenarios around will basically see continued warming and the issues of warming may be different, but certainly will continue getting warmer and warmer,” said Wang.

When observing these pathways in relation to Greenland, Wang found that RCP 2.6, the lowest emission scenario, is the last remaining option with hopes of stabilizing the ice sheet.

“That is the only scenario which may have the potential to reach the target of the Paris Agreement to basically limit global warming by 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” said Wang.

Future projections, such as the work done by Wang, come with many uncertainties. However they can help to put people on the path to make the world a greener place.

“There is still a long way to go, so it’s hard to say what will happen. It is depending on what kind of action we take,” said Wang. “But it does provide some hope that if we can follow the IPCC 2.6 pathways to reduce greenhouse gases significantly, there is a hope that we can stabilize the Greenland ice sheet.”

1 National Snow and Ice Data Center https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/quickfacts/icesheets.html

2 Adam Fenech https://projects.thestar.com/climate-change-canada/prince-edward-island/

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