The Planet is Warming, and Glaciers are Melting: Are We Doomed?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than a third of the world’s remaining glaciers will melt before the year 2100. In terms of ice sheets, 95% of the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic is already gone. Truthfully, these statistics are frightening considering glaciers store around three-quarters of the Earth’s freshwater. Melting ice sheets and glaciers reinforce the direness of climate change. Have you watched a video of a glacier breaking off and plummeting into the ocean? Let me tell you, it makes it difficult to deny climate change exists.

 

The melting

The concept of melting ice sheets and glaciers isn’t rocket science, especially if you compare it to a melting ice cube. You’ve most likely noticed an ice cube melts when it’s exposed to a heat source like warm water or air. Like an ice cube, the surface of glaciers and ice sheets can melt from warm air. However, ice sheets and glaciers also melt from warm ocean waters, their surrounding terrain, and their own meltwater.

Structure by Michael Himbeault (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Humans’ role

The increase in human produced greenhouse gas emissions has been a major contributor to ice sheets and glaciers melting. The burning of fossil fuels (i.e., coal and petroleum) has been linked to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and, in turn, a warming climate.

 

The formation

Glaciers form when snow slowly accumulates (over hundreds to thousands of years) and is compressed into ice. As the snow continues to build, the glacier begins to slowly move under the pressure of its own weight, dragging debris and rocks with it, becoming larger in size and weight. Currently, around 10% of Earth’s land area is covered with glacial ice and almost 90% is found in Antarctica (with the remaining 10% found in Greenland).

 

The importance

Glaciers are essential as they provide a scientific record of changes to climate over time. To see changes to the climate, scientists drill a hole through polar ice sheets, analysing the tiny bubbles that are trapped in the ice. These tiny bubbles are actual samples of the Earth’s past atmosphere and have highlighted that the concentration of greenhouse gases has significantly increased since the Industrial Revolution.

Dawes Glacier by Skye D. (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flickr

Why does it matter if glaciers and ice sheets are melting?

Ice sheets:

Ice sheets are formed in the ocean and melt into the sea meaning they don’t directly increase sea level. It’s the same concept as a melted ice cube in a glass of water, it doesn’t increase the level of water. Regardless, melting ice sheets leads to negative outcomes for animals (like polar bears) who use the ice to hunt on land.

Glaciers:

Melting glaciers directly contributes to rising sea levels as their water is stored on land which means their runoff ends in our ocean. Rising sea levels poses a major threat to cities and people, with scientists believing sea levels could increase by 70 metres. Some scientists predict places like Miami and Bangladesh will be submerged under water within the century, even if we were to cease burning fossil fuels within the next decade. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated the average global sea level has risen between 10 and 20 centimetres in the past hundred years.

Ice sheets and glaciers:

Ice sheets and glaciers are important because they keep the planet cooler. Snow and ice reflect excess heat back into space which is critical in maintaining a stable average global temperature. This means melting ice leads to more heat absorption which increases temperatures. Arctic permafrost (any ground that remains completely frozen) contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon. When this permafrost thaws, the carbon released may evaporate as methane which would be troublesome. Methane is a form of gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over. Let’s just hope we don’t get to this.

Lake Baikal in Winter by bfatphoto (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

What’s next?

I’ve clearly been a Debbie Downer in this post. But we can all do our part in reducing our own carbon footprint. Every action taken counts: whether it’s reducing your meat intake, taking public transport, or recycling.


One Response to “The Planet is Warming, and Glaciers are Melting: Are We Doomed?”

  1. Darrell Chew says:

    Great post!
    How do you feel about increased regulation for companies in order to limit their carbon footprint? I feel like a company has a lot more emissions than an individual. Nonetheless, we still need to do our part as individuals.