'Astonishing' Heat Wave Melts 97 Percent of Greenland Ice Sheet

Not expected to have a significant impact on sea level rise.

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It's not just the east coast that's been sweating this summer—a recent heat wave in Greenland between July 8 and July 12 melted an estimated 97 percent of the country's surface ice sheet, a development NASA scientists call "astonishing."

A high-pressure system, similar to ones that cause heat waves in the United States, hung over Greenland for several days, pushing temperatures just above the freezing point.

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"It's something worth standing up and taking note of," Waleed Abdalati, NASA's chief scientist, says. Although melting in Greenland over the summer is an annual occurrence, the extent and speed of the recent melt is concerning, he says. "What we've seen this year is seriously unusual, it makes you wonder what's going on."

The melt is something NASA satellites haven't captured in the 30 years they've been monitoring Greenland's ice sheets, and may represent a larger climate change trend, but it doesn't mean the sea level is going to instantly rise or that Greenland's surface ice sheet won't recover.

Abdalati says it'll take months to determine what the final effects of the melt are, and will largely depend on the weather for the rest of the summer. Most of the melted ice is expected to eventually refreeze.

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"I wouldn't anticipate that this in and of itself would have a direct correlation with sea level rise, but there are ripple effects that could contribute in the future. This one event makes the ice sheet more susceptible to subsequent melts," he says.

Given the United States' drought, the East Coast's recent storms, and all-around wacky weather over the past couple years, Abdalati says there might be more to come.

"It's kind of like—you can have a heat wave that puts temperatures in the central U.S. at 100 degrees for a week, and then you can have a heat wave that puts temperatures at 110 degrees for a week," he says. "This is more the latter. It just doesn't happen that often."

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com