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1238694609

TOPSHOT - Icebergs from the San Rafael Glacier float on the San Rafael lake, in the region of Aysen, southern Chile, on February 13, 2022. - The melting of the glaciers is a natural phenomena which climate change has accelerated significantly, told AFP Jorge O'Kuinghttons, chief of the Regional Unit of Glaciology of the General Water Directorate (DGA). (Photo by PABLO COZZAGLIO / AFP) (Photo by PABLO COZZAGLIO/AFP via Getty Images)

Photo by: PABLO COZZAGLIO

PABLO COZZAGLIO

Melting Glaciers Could Flood Society with Problems

By: Robin Fearon

Earth’s glaciers are both a precious resource and a fragile ecosystem that is disappearing quickly due to global warming. Scientists warn that glaciers will vanish from the mainland US within decades. And their rapid melting is dangerous to society and the natural systems we rely on.

March 07, 2022

Sea level rise is perhaps the most serious impact. Coastal towns and cities face increasing storm surges and becoming permanently flooded. Alongside this, the loss of freshwater from glaciers means less to drink, to water crops, or to use in generating electricity.

These vast rivers of ice perform a crucial role in regulating the Earth’s atmosphere. Ice cools air and reflects the sun’s heat away from the planet’s surface, acting as an air conditioning system. Melting glaciers reduce this cooling potential, but researchers have discovered that as meltwaters shrink this also allows microscopic bacteria and fungi in rivers to release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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1173052563

The Matanuska Glacier is seen on September 7, 2019, near Palmer, Alaska. Some studies show that as global temperatures rise, Alaska's 19,000 glaciers will lose between 30% and 50% of their mass by the end of the century. Scientists continue to investigate what this means to the environment as well as the rising level of the oceans.

Photo by: Joe Raedle

Joe Raedle

The Matanuska Glacier is seen on September 7, 2019, near Palmer, Alaska. Some studies show that as global temperatures rise, Alaska's 19,000 glaciers will lose between 30% and 50% of their mass by the end of the century. Scientists continue to investigate what this means to the environment as well as the rising level of the oceans.

Along with carbon released by thawing ground, and from microbes or soot stored in the ice itself, this negative climate feedback helps warm the planet further. Glaciologists studying tidewater glaciers in Alaska say that the warming sea is causing them to melt 100 times faster than was previously thought.

Alaskan and other communities that rely on meltwaters face a new problem – the sudden disappearance of rivers. This happens when a river’s course is changed by rapid glacial melt. In Canada’s Yukon the Slim’s River changed course in a few days, drying up one river, lowering nearby Kluane Lake levels by almost two meters, and leaving residents and migrating salmon high and dry.

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1032907670

View from Sheep Mountain into Slim's River Valley.

Photo by: Stefan Wackerhagen

Stefan Wackerhagen

View from Sheep Mountain into Slim's River Valley.

Data gathered by the World Glacier Monitoring Service more than a decade ago suggested that the loss of glaciers threatened the livelihood of more than two billion people relying on meltwater in nearby rivers.

Glaciologist Jennifer Wadham told the World Economic Forum in 2021 that glacier loss is an “imminent threat to life”. She assesses that glaciers “are lifelines to us, through their freshwaters, but also how they connect with the very fragile environments and ecosystems around them as life-support machines in many ways.”

Melting glaciers attached to the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets present the biggest threat because temperatures are rising fastest near the poles and in high-altitude regions like the Himalayas. Earth is as warm now as it was 125,000 years ago when sea levels were six to nine meters (20-30 feet) higher, and melts could easily accelerate.

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585736218

Icebergs from the Jacobshavn glacier or Sermeq Kujalleq drains 7% of the Greenland ice sheet and is the largest glacier outside of Antarctica. It calves enough ice in one day to supply New York with water for one year. It is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world at up to 40 meters per day (19 meters per day before 2002) and has also receeded rapidly (40 km since 1850) due to human-induced climate change as temperatures have risen in Greenland by 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 60 years.

Photo by: Ashley Cooper

Ashley Cooper

Icebergs from the Jacobshavn glacier or Sermeq Kujalleq drains 7% of the Greenland ice sheet and is the largest glacier outside of Antarctica. It calves enough ice in one day to supply New York with water for one year. It is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world at up to 40 meters per day (19 meters per day before 2002) and has also receeded rapidly (40 km since 1850) due to human-induced climate change as temperatures have risen in Greenland by 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 60 years.

Scientists say the Greenland ice sheet is at a tipping point and one or two meters of sea-level rise from ice loss is likely. Researchers observing the Thwaites glacier in western Antarctica – called the ‘doomsday glacier’ – say its fate is in a delicate balance. Alone it could contribute 65cm (2 feet) to sea levels.


One study from Cornell University says the rise will probably happen quickly, leaving nations with the disastrous situation of more people on less land. By 2100, there could be as many as two billion climate refugees pushing inland from rising seas. Future-proofing against this scenario, say, researchers, means containing greenhouse gas levels and planning for a vastly different world.

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