Glaciers melting at alarming rates, water problems feared
Modified WWF release
September 7, 2005
The great majority of the world’s glaciers appear to be declining at rates equal to or greater than long-established trends. This image from the ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) instrument aboard NASA’s Terra satellite shows the termini of the glaciers in the Bhutan-Himalaya. Glacial lakes have been rapidly forming on the surface of the debris-covered glaciers in this region during the last few decades. According to Jeffrey Kargel, a USGS scientist, glaciers in the Himalaya are wasting at alarming and accelerating rates, as indicated by comparisons of satellite and historic data, and as shown by the widespread, rapid growth of lakes on the glacier surfaces, Image provided by Jeffrey Kargel, USGS/NASA JPL/AGU.
The following is a report released by WWF. “GOING, GOING, GONE! Climate Change And Global Glacier Decline” is available for download as a colorful brochure with pictures at here. Further information can be found at panda.org/climate
Global Warming is melting glaciers in every region of the world, putting millions of people at risk from floods,
droughts and lack of drinking water.
Glaciers are ancient rivers of compressed snow that creep through the landscape, shaping the planet’s surface. They
are the Earth’s largest freshwater reservoir, collectively covering an area the size of South America. Glaciers have
been retreating worldwide since the end of the Little Ice Age (around 1850), but in recent decades glaciers have
begun melting at rates that cannot be explained by historical trends (1).
Projected climate change over the next century will further affect the rate at which glaciers melt. Average global
temperatures are expected to rise 1.4-5.8ºC by the end of the 21st century (2). Simulations project that a 4ºC rise in
temperature would eliminate nearly all of the world’s glaciers (the melt-down of the Greenland ice sheets could
be triggered at a temperature increase of 2 to 3ºC). Even in the least damaging scenario a 1ºC rise along with an
increase in rain and snow glaciers will continue to lose volume over the coming century (3).
Although only a small fraction of the planet’s permanent ice is stored outside of Greenland and Antarctica, these
glaciers are extremely important because they respond rapidly to climate change and their loss directly affects
human populations and ecosystems. Continued, widespread melting of glaciers during the coming century will
lead to floods, water shortages for millions of people, and sea level rise threatening and destroying coastal
communities and habitats.
“GOING, GOING, GONE! Climate Change And Global Glacier Decline” [pdf ]
REGIONS AT RISK
the sole source of water for major cities during dry seasons.
supply water to one third of the world’s population.
rise is submerging low-lying land and saltwater is inundating vital groundwater reserves.
NATURE AT RISK
as the Sundarbans succumb to sea level rise.
Since the early 1960s, mountain glaciers worldwide have experienced an estimated net loss of over 4000 cubic
kilometers of water more than the annual discharge of the Orinoco, Congo, Yangtze and Mississippi
Rivers combined; this loss was more than twice as fast in the 1990s than during previous decades.
MEASURING GLACIER LOSS
The most accurate measure of glacier change is mass balance, the difference between accumulation (mass added as
snow) and ablation (mass lost due to melting or calving off of chunks). Even if precipitation increases, mass balance
may decline if warmer temperatures cause precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow. Mass change is reported in
cubic meters of water lost, or as thickness averaged over the entire area of the glacier. Because mass changes are
difficult to measure, glacier shrinkage is more often described as a loss of glacier area, or as the distance the front
(terminus) of the glacier has retreated.
While many species are likely to be affected by changes in stream flow and sea level associated with glacier melting,
animals that dwell on or near glaciers may be pushed towards extinction by the disappearance of their icy habitats.
Far from being barren expanses of ice, glaciers are home to some of the most unique organisms and ecosystems on Earth.
For example, the tiny ice worm spends its entire life on ice, roaming over glaciers at night, feeding on glacial algae,
and occasionally being snatched up by a hungry snow bunting (46). The physiological adaptation that allows these
worms to survive at 0ºC remains unknown, and because these worms disintegrate at temperatures over 5ºC, their
secret may be lost as temperatures rise and their glacial habitat melts away.
Climate change has already led to the loss of an entire ecosystem on the
crumbling ice shelves of the Arctic. Between 2000 and 2002, Ward
Hunt Ice Shelf off of Ellesmere Island in Canada broke in two, draining
much of the water from overlying Disraeli Fjord, the largest remaining
epishelf (ice shelf-bounded) lake in the Northern Hemisphere. This
3000-year old lake supported a rare ecosystem where microscopic
marine organisms near the bottom of the lake lived in harmony with
their freshwater brethren in the brackish surface waters. By 2002, 96%
of this unique low-salinity habitat had been lost (42).
Even animals that do not live directly on glaciers can be severely affected
by their disappearance. Kittlitz’s murrelet, for example, is a small,
diving seabird that forages for food almost exclusively in areas where
glacial meltwater enters the ocean. These birds are already in serious
trouble; their global population (located mostly in Alaska) is thought to
have plummeted from several hundred thousand in 1972 to less than
20,000 in the early 1990s41. Several conservation groups have filed a
petition to declare Kittlitz’s murrelet an endangered species, citing climate
change and the loss of critical glacier-associated habitat as one of
the primary reasons for the species’ decline.
Even farther away from the melting glaciers themselves, coral reefs will
be affected by rising sea level. Corals require light for photosynthesis
to survive. The depth at which corals can live is limited by how far light
can penetrate the water. When light diminishes as sea level rises, corals
living at this light limiting depth will be lost (47). Coral reefs at other
depths will also see reduced growth rates as light quality changes from
rising sea level. In one simulation, it was shown that coral reefs in the
Caribbean are not expected to be able to keep up with sea level rise (48).
This has consequences not only for the corals and marine life, but for
the human communities that rely on these reefs for subsistence.
Although persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs and DDT
are widely banned today, they were used extensively in the middle of
the last century. These long-lived pollutants are transported in the air
from their source to cooler areas where they condense and are deposited
in glacial ice. Until recently, these compounds had remained trapped
in the ice, but rapid melting has begun to release them back into the
environment. For example, in one Canadian lake, glacial meltwater is
the source of 50-97% of the various POPs entering the lake (17). At
least 10% of this glacial melt is from ice that was deposited between the
1950s and 1970s, as shown by the presence of tritium, a by-product of
nuclear bomb tests conducted during this era.
Ice in Parque Nacional los Glaciares, Argentina. ©Mongabay.com
Over recent decades, Arctic glaciers have generally been shrinking, with the exception of Scandinavia and
Iceland, where increased precipitation has resulted in a positive balance36. Arctic melting appears to have
accelerated in the late 1990s; estimates of combined annual melting rose from 100 sq km per year from
1980-89 to 320 sq km in 1997 and 540 sq km in 1998 (37). Greenland alone contains 12% of the world’s ice. While
portions of the interior are gaining mass, there has been significant thinning and ice loss around the periphery.
This loss is not simply due to melting at the edges; entire portions of the Greenland ice sheet appear to be sliding
towards the sea. Because this sliding accelerates when surface melting is most intense, it is believed that surface
meltwater may be trickling down to the glacial bed and lubricating ice sheet movement (38). This recent discovery
provides a mechanism for rapid response of ice sheets to climate change, a process that was previously believed
to require hundreds or thousands of years.
Glaciers in the Rocky Mountains and Western Coastal Ranges have experienced considerable
losses during this century, and melting is accelerating rapidly in southern Alaska. Since
Glacier National Park (Montana, USA) was established in 1910, more than two thirds of
its glaciers and about 75% of its glacier area has disappeared29; if the present rate of
warming continues, there will be no glaciers left in the Park by 2030 (30). In Banff, Jasper,
and Yoho National Parks in the Canadian Rockies, glacier cover has decreased by at least 25%
during the 20th century (31). South Cascade Glacier in coastal Washington (USA) lost 19 m of ice
thickness between 1976 and 1995, ten times more than during the previous 18 years (32). Nearly
all glaciers surveyed in Alaska are melting, and thinning rates in the last 5-7 years are more
than twice those seen in previous decades (13).
Glacier in Argentina. Parque Nacional los Glaciares. ©Mongabay.com
The northern Andes contain the largest concentration of glaciers in the tropics, but these
glaciers are receding rapidly and losses have accelerated during the 1990s. In Peru,
Yanamarey Glacier lost a quarter of its area during the last fifty years (25), and Uruashraju and
Broggi Glaciers lost 40-50% of their length from 1948-1990 (26). In Ecuador, Antizana Glacier
shrank 7-8 times faster during the 1990s than in previous decades. Similarly, Glacier
Chacaltaya (Bolivia) lost nearly half of its area and two thirds of its volume during the mid-
1990s alone, and could disappear by 2010 (27). In the sub-tropical wet Andes, the large ice masses
of the North Patagonia Icefield (Chile) and South Patagonia Icefield (Chile and Argentina)
had lost only 4-6% of their 1945 area by the mid 1990s (28), but thinning has accelerated recently.
Parts of the southern icefield experienced thinning rates from 1995-2000 that were over
twice as fast as their average rates during the previous three decades (14).
Antarctica is blanketed by ice sheets that contain about 95% of the planet’s freshwater. Cold temperatures
prevent significant surface melting, but recent work shows that bottom melting underneath glaciers at the
junction between land and sea is rapid and widespread throughout Antarctica, possibly due to
increased ocean temperatures (39). Warmer seas have also contributed to the rapid thinning and breakup of
many large, floating ice shelves. These shelves may buttress and slow the glaciers flowing into them;
although there was no change in glacier velocity after the loss of the Wordie Ice Shelf, several major ice
streams that nourished the Larsen A shelf are flowing as much as 2-3 times faster towards the sea since its
breakup in 1995 (40). At the same time, the interior has experienced an increase in accumulation because more
water is being evaporated from warmer seas and falling as snow (2). The extent to which these gains compensate
for ice loss at the edges is unknown.
In the past four decades, the majority of glaciers in the Alps
have experienced considerable mass losses; this is illustrated
by the Hintereisferner (Austria), Gries (Switzerland), and Sarennes
(France), each of which lost the equivalent of 14 m ice thickness
since the 1960s. Glacier melting has accelerated since 1980,
and 10-20% of glacier ice in the Alps was lost in less than
two decades (18). The discovery of a 5300-year old ice man in a
melting glacier in Italy demonstrates that many glaciers are
now smaller than they have been for thousands of years. The
World Meteorological Organization reports that summer 2003
temperatures, which triggered floods, land slides, and the rapid
formation of glacial lakes, were the hottest ever recorded in
northern and central Europe; if current trends continue, the
European Alps will lose major parts of their glacier coverage
within the next few decades (18).
The vast majority of all Himalayan glaciers
have been retreating and thinning over the past
30 years, with accelerated losses in the last
decade. For example, glaciers in the Bhutan
Himalayas are now retreating at an average rate
of 30-40 m per year (22). In Central Asia, glaciers
are wasting at exceptionally high rates. In the
northern Tien Shan (Kazakhstan), glaciers have
been collectively losing 2 sq km of ice (0.7% of
their total mass) per year since 1955, and
Tuyuksu glacier has receded nearly a kilometer
since 1923 (10). Glaciers in the Ak-shirak Range
(Kyrgyzstan) have lost 23% of their area since
197723, similar to area losses in the northern
Tien Shan (29% from 1955-1990) and the
Pamirs (16% from 1957-1980). In the Chinese
Tien Shan, Urumqihe Glacier lost the equivalent
of 4 m ice thickness from 1979-1995 (24), and the
Chinese Meteorological Administration predicts
that China’s northwestern mountains will
lose over a quarter of their current glacier coverage
by 2050. These glaciers supply 15-20%
of the water to over 20 million people in the
Xinjiang and Qinghai Provinces alone (45).
Two pictures from NASA showing Mt. Kilimanjaro. The top image is from February 17, 1993 while the bottom image if from February 21, 2000
Tropical glaciers in Africa have decreased in area by 60-70% on
average since the early 1900s. The ice fields atop Mt. Kilimanjaro
have lost 80% of their area during this century and despite
persisting for over 10,000 years, they are likely to disappear
by 2020 (19). On Mt. Kenya, 7 of the 18 glaciers present in 1900
had disappeared by 199320, and four glaciers (Lewis, Tyndall,
Gregory and Cesar) had lost between 60% and 92% of their
area. The remaining glaciers in the Ruwenzori Mountains of
Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are also melting
rapidly, with area losses during the 20th century ranging
from 53% (Speke) to 90% (Moore) (21).
The tropical Carstensz Glaciers in Papua Province (formerly Irian Jaya),
Indonesia are melting rapidly; 80% of their collective area was lost between
1942 and 2000 (33). The West Meren Glacier receded 2600 m since it was
first surveyed in 1936, before melting away sometime between 1997
and 1999. In Papua New Guinea, three summit ice domes that were
known to exist in the Central Cordillera Range disappeared in the 1960s (34).
In temperate New Zealand, 127 glaciers surveyed in the Southern Alps
have shortened by 38% and lost 25% of their area since the mid 1850s (35);
however, many of these glaciers have advanced in recent decades, presumably
due to increased precipitation.
Glaciers And Freshwater
Although our planet appears to be a watery oasis when viewed from space, most of this liquid is far too salty
for humans, plants or animals to consume. Only about 2.5% of the water on earth is freshwater, and less
than one-hundredth of one percent is drinkable and renewed each year through precipitation.
Seventy percent of the world’s freshwater is frozen in glaciers, which buffer ecosystems against climate variability
by releasing water during dry seasons or years. In tropical areas, glaciers melt year-round, contributing continuously
to streamflow and often providing the only source of water for humans and wildlife during dry parts of the
year. Freshwater is already a limiting resource for much of the planet, and in the next 30 years population growth
is likely to far exceed any potential increases in available water.
The Himalayan glaciers that feed seven of the great rivers of Asia (the Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween,
Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He) and ensure a year-round water supply to 2 billion people are retreating at a
startlingly fast rate. In the Ganga, the loss of glacier meltwater would reduce July-September flows by two thirds,
causing water shortages for 500 million people and 37% of India’s irrigated land (8,9). In the northern Tien Shan
mountains of Kazakhstan, more than 90% of the region’s water supply is used for agriculture and 75-80% of river
runoff is derived from glaciers and permafrost, which are melting at accelerated rates (10). In the dry Andes, glacial
meltwater contributes more to river flow than rainfall, even during the rainy season (11). Most large cities in Ecuador,
Peru and Bolivia rely on meltwater from rapidly disappearing glaciers for their water supply and hydroelectric
power, and many communities are already experiencing shortages and conflicts over use (12).
This is a “Blue Marble” image from NASA, “Earth at night” is superimposed on this (NASA/GSFC), Using the lights as an indication of population density. The squares on the map highlight a representative number of cities within the regions of glacier-fed areas. All of these areas derive some benefit from melting glaciers. The implication is that if the glaciers melt away completely, or substantially, these areas would be affected. Image: Courtesy of NASA/GSFC, NOAA/NGDC, DMSP, GLIMS
According to a press release from NASA and United States Geological Survey (USGS), “glaciers in the Himalaya are wasting at alarming and accelerating rates, as indicated by comparisons of satellite and historic data, and as shown by the widespread, rapid growth of lakes on the glacier surfaces.” Further, “glacier changes in the next 100 years could significantly affect agriculture, water supplies, hydroelectric power, transportation, mining, coastlines, and ecological habitats. Melting ice may cause both serious problems and, for the short term in some regions, helpful increases in water availability”
Rapid melting of glaciers can lead to flooding of rivers and to the formation
of glacial meltwater lakes, which may pose an even more serious
threat. Continued melting or calving of ice chunks into lakes can cause
catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods. In 1985, such a flood at the
Dig Tsho (Langmoche) Lake in Nepal killed several people and destroyed
bridges, houses, arable land, and a nearly completed hydropower plant (4).
A recent UNEP study found that 44 glacial lakes in Nepal and Bhutan
are in immediate danger of overflowing as a result of climate change (5,6).
In Peru, a chunk of glacier ice fell into Lake Palcacocha in 1941, causing
a flood that killed 7000 people; recent satellite photos reveal that another
chunk of loose ice is poised over this lake, threatening the lives of
100,000 people below (7).
SEA LEVEL RISE
Average global sea level rose by 1-2 mm per year during the 1900s and
is projected to continue rising, with an estimated contribution of 0.2-0.4 mm
per year from melting glaciers (2). The effect of glaciers may be underestimated,
however, as recent studies suggest that accelerated melting in
Alaska and the Patagonia Icefields since the mid-1990s has increased
the combined contribution of just these two areas to 0.375 mm per
year (13,14). Sea-level rise will affect coastal regions throughout the
world, causing flooding, erosion, and saltwater intrusion into
aquifers and freshwater habitats. Even the modest sea-level rise seen
during the 20th century led to erosion and the loss of 100 sq km of wetlands
per year in the U.S. Mississippi River Delta (15).
Heron island on the Great Barrier Reef. ©Mongabay.com.
In Trinidad and
Tobago, as in many low-lying islands, beaches are retreating several meters
per year and salinity levels have begun to rise in coastal aquifers (43).
Small Pacific islands such as Tonga, the Marshall Islands and
the Federated States of Micronesia are particularly vulnerable, and could
lose large portions of their land area to rising seas and storm surges (44). A global
sea level rise of 1 m would inundate 80% of the Maldives, displace 24 million
people in Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, and completely eliminate
the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and home to the
endangered Royal Bengal Tiger and hundreds of other species (16).
Worldwide, accelerating glacier loss provides independent and startling evidence that global warming is occurring (1).
It is now clear that the Earth is warming rapidly due to man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping
gases, which blanket the planet and cause temperatures to rise2. Climate change is already happening, but we
can strive to keep global warming within tolerable limits if we act now.
Based on scenarios of projected damage to ecosystems and human communities, WWF seeks to limit global warming
to a maximum of 2ºC over pre-industrial levels. Although a warming of 1-2ºC will clearly threaten human
health, water supplies and vulnerable ecosystems, a warming of at least 1ºC appears unavoidable. Warming beyond
2ºC is likely to result in rapidly escalating damages, with severe threats to human populations and the loss of unique
and irreplaceable ecosystems. It is therefore imperative that emissions of the main heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide
(CO2), are significantly reduced, in order to avoid exceeding this 2ºC threshold.
The majority of CO2 pollution is released when fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas are burned for transportation,
heating, or the production of electricity. Coal is particularly damaging, as it produces 70% more CO2
emissions than natural gas for the same energy output. Electricity generation is the single largest source of manmade
CO2, amounting to 37% of worldwide emissions.
WWF is challenging the electric power sector to become CO2-free by the middle of this century in industrialized
countries, and to make a significant shift towards that goal in developing countries. A number of power companies
have already signed on to WWF’s vision, but in order to reduce emissions significantly, power utilities, financial
institutions, consumers, and policy makers must all play a role:
- Utilities can support meaningful global warming legislation, improve the energy efficiency of power plants,
increase their use of renewable energy sources, and halt investment in new coal plants and coal mining.
- Financial institutions can call upon the companies they invest in to disclose their emissions policies, and switch
their investments to companies that are striving to be more competitive under future limits on carbon emissions.
- Electricity consumers should opt for “green power” where it is available, demand this choice where it is not, and
invest in highly efficient appliances.
- Policy makers must ease the transition to a carbon-free energy industry by passing legislation that creates favorable
market conditions, shaping new frameworks for change, and ensuring that the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s primary
legal tool to combat global warming, enters into force as soon as possible.
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Text by Stacey Combes, Michael L. Prentice, Lara Hansen and Lynn Rosentrater
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