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Glaciers melting at alarming rates, water problems feared

Glaciers melting at alarming rates, water problems feared

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


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 ]

  • Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – where shrinking glaciers supply water year-round, and are often
    the sole source of water for major cities during dry seasons.
  • The Himalayas – where the danger of catastrophic flooding is severe, and glacier-fed rivers
    supply water to one third of the world’s population.
  • Small island nations such as Tuvalu and some of the Solomon Islands – where sea level
    rise is submerging low-lying land and saltwater is inundating vital groundwater reserves.


  • Royal Bengal tiger – endangered tigers that will lose a large portion of their worldwide habitat
    as the Sundarbans succumb to sea level rise.
  • Kittlitz’s murrelet – rare birds specialized to hunt in cloudy glacier water and nest on top of ice.
  • Coral reefs – unique organisms that can be starved of energy from the sun when sea levels 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.


    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. ©

    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. ©

    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).


    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. ©

    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:


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    Text by Stacey Combes, Michael L. Prentice, Lara Hansen and Lynn Rosentrater
    Designed by IPMA Worldwide Press

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