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Released: 8/25/1995

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U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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Susan Russell-Robinson 1-click interview
Phone: 703-648-4460

Greenland’s inland glacier ice -- covering a combined area larger than Alaska and Oregon and the largest remnant of the last "Ice Age" in North America -- is described and illustrated in the latest chapter in the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) "Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World."

According to the atlas the Greenland ice sheet is particularly significant to the global environment because:

  • It is a natural "ice box" that provides a cooling effect on a larger region, as well as affecting local climates;
  • It provides long-term storage for a large percentage of the world’s freshwater; and
  • It discharges icebergs into surrounding oceans that can be a hazard to shipping.
"The present-day volume of glacier ice on Earth, if totally melted, represents about 80 meters [approximately 260 feet] of sea-level rise. Between individual ice age events, the Earth’s sea level has varied as much as almost 200 meters [660 feet]" said USGS geologist Richard S. Williams, Jr., senior editor of the atlas series. "The impact of even small amounts of sea-level change in low-lying coastal areas, where most humans live, may be significant. This global baseline study is necessary to assess worldwide changes in glaciers and potential accompanying changes in sea level over the next few decades."

A comprehensive baseline of the Earth’s glaciers during the 1970s will result from the atlas series, "Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World." This series represents an international project that is coordinated by the USGS. The project compares up-to-date field information about the glaciers and historical data with optimum Landsat multispectral scanner (MSS) images to determine changes in the Earth’s glaciers.

Until recently, studying the extent of Greenland glaciers has been difficult. Uniform aerial photography of the entire coastal region was only achieved in 1987. Compilation of maps using geodetic satellite positioning techniques to accurately determine geographical positions of the northern parts of the island is progressing.

The great areal extent of the Inland Ice makes it difficult to observe and study the ice sheet in its entirety. Estimates of ice-covered and ice-free areas, based on a newly compiled map of Greenland, are presented in this atlas.

Each Landsat image covers about 35,000 square kilometers (13,500 square miles), almost the combined areas of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Landsat images were used to outline areas of ablation and accumulation of the outer parts of the Inland Ice and determine if the ice is growing or receding. Preliminary results reported in the new atlas indicate that the Inland Ice is in equilibrium, neither growing nor receding.

The Inland Ice, Northern Hemisphere’s largest remnant of the Earth’s most recent ice age, is 1,736,095 square kilometers (670,272 square miles, or more than the combined areas of Alaska and Oregon) and covers about 80 percent of Greenland. In addition, approximately 48,599 square kilometers (18,763 square miles, or more than the combined areas of Vermont and New Hampshire) of Greenland are covered by smaller, local ice caps and glaciers.

The satellite-image atlas of Greenland is the fifth in an 11-volume series, "Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World," being produced by the USGS. Editors of the volume are USGS scientists Richard S. Williams, Jr. and Jane G. Ferrigno.

The 141-page Greenland chapter was written by Anker Weidick of the Geological Survey of Greenland and includes a section on Landsat images of Greenland by Williams and Ferrigno. The satellite images were selected from the Landsat image data base at the USGS EROS Data Center, the Canada Centre for Remote Sensing, and the European Space Agency.

Copies of Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World: Greenland, published as USGS Professional Paper 1386-C, can be purchased for $16 per copy from the USGS Branch of Information Services, Denver Federal Center, Box 25286, Denver, Colo. 80225. Orders must specify the report number (PP1386-C) and include a check or money order payable to "U.S. Department of the Interior - USGS."

A two-page USGS Global Change Fact Sheet that provides background information about the "Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World" is available on the World Wide Web at and as document 8025 on the USGS fax-on-demand system, EarthFax, phone 703-648-4888 and press 4. For more USGS product information, call 1-800-ASK-USGS.

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