Glaciers - Magnificent, Massive, Melting, A Mounting Crisis
It’s easy to search the Web for glaciers both in their pristine solid beauty and while they’re melting.
So, instead, let’s do this Grade 1-level activity.
Place a large chunk of ice on a glass. Then slowly fill it with water. Stop when the water reaches a few centimeters from the brim.
Then place that glass of water on top of some pebbles.
Observe the following things:
- how the ice (the glacier) slowly melts
- how the water in the glass (the sea) will eventually reach the brim
- how the water will spill out (rising sea levels) onto the pebbles (houses in the coastal areas)
Glaciers have been melting for a long time now. Why and what should we expect?
Glaciers are ice of mammoth size. And they move. The Earth’s gravity pulls them down, albeit slowly.
Per National Geographic Society:
About 2 percent of all the water on Earth is frozen in glaciers.
We can now imagine that whenever glaciers melt, the sea levels rise.
It takes centuries for glaciers to form. That makes them hundreds of thousands of years old.
There are two main types of glaciers.
First are the continental glaciers. There are only two of them:
- Antarctic Ice Sheet (the bigger one; 17 times more ice)
- Greenland Ice Sheet
Second are the alpine or valley glaciers. They are the glaciers found in mountains (hence, they’re also referred to as mountain glaciers).
Other types of glaciers:
- piedmont glacier (two or more glaciers that meet at the base of mountains and then combine as one
- tidewater glacier (a piedmont glacier that finds its way to the sea)
- ice caps (glaciers that cover mountain tops)
Two classic spy films and a fantasy drama series with fire-breathing dragons. Then throw in a billionaire caped crusader and a voluptuous kick-ass heiress.
What do you get? Glaciers. Sort of.
Scenes from the James Bond movies A View to a Kill (1985) and Die Another Day (2002) were shot in Jökulsárlón. In the latter, a Jaguar and an Aston Martin were driven in this frozen lagoon in Iceland.
Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) also walked in that famous glacier.
Some episodes in HBO’s Game of Thrones series (2011-2019) showed viewers the majestic sights of the Svínafellsjökull Glacier in Iceland. The same glacier is where parts of Batman Begins (2005) were filmed.
Here are other famous glaciers:
- Aletsch Glacier (Switzerland)
- Mýrdalsjökull (Iceland)
- Perito Moreno Glacier (Argentina)
- Taku Glacier (Alaska)
- Vatnajokull Glacier National Park (Iceland; a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
One similarity of glaciers and icebergs is that they’re both made of ice. But they’re really different from each other.
According to the National Geographic Society:
Icebergs are large chunks of ice that break off from glaciers.
After breaking off from a glacier, icebergs start to gradually float in the ocean.
When calving happens in the glaciers in Greenland, most of the icebergs travel their way to the Northern Hemisphere (e.g., Europe, North America).
If some bacteria, which can’t be seen by the naked eye, hold significance, what more of these frozen gigantic structures?
For Jean-Baptiste Bosson, a scientific officer at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Switzerland:
Glaciers are keystones of Life on Earth.
He mentioned the fact that glaciers are “giant freshwater reservoirs.” Glaciers, ice caps, and permafrost are made of freshwater.
Water is precious. One of the basic human needs. People use freshwater:
- in food production
- in the manufacturing of goods
- for electricity production
- for sanitation purposes
- for personal hygiene
What can be considered freshwater? Per the U.S. Geological Survey:
Freshwater is water containing less than 1,000 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids, most often salt.
Based on the paper Freshwater Lakes (2008) published by the Encyclopedia of Ecology (2008):
- 2.53 percent of global water is freshwater (found in rivers and lakes)
- 0.76 percent is fresh groundwater
- 1.76 percent of global water is found in glaciers, ice caps, and permafrost
Bosson also said that glaciers remind humans about climate change. That’s also what the Colorado-based program Extreme Ice Survey (founded 2007) said about them:
Glaciers are sentinels of climate change.
As they melt at an alarming rate, it means the planet is getting warmer and warmer.
Glaciers are melting because of certain human activities. Here is a quick discussion of fossil fuels to help explain why.
Found in the Earth’s crust are decomposing organisms called plankton as well as plants and animals.
For example, plankton become natural gas and oil and plants become coal.
Humans extract fossil fuels (through coal mining; land and offshore drilling). They burn them to produce heat, to generate electricity, and to power various modes of transportation.
When fossil fuels get burned, they produce greenhouse gasses (GHGs) such as:
- carbon dioxide (majority)
- nitrous oxide
As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns:
Greenhouse gasses trap heat and make the planet warmer.
Other examples of fossil fuels are:
- bitumen (also called asphalt or tar; used as an ingredient in some paints and in paving roads and in roofing)
- heavy oils (heavy crude oil is used in making petrochemicals and plastics)
- oil shales (they get refined to turn them into gasoline, diesel fuel, liquid petroleum gas or LPG)
The table below shows how greenhouse gas emissions have increased over the years, based on a graph created by Our World in Data.
|Year||Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the World|
|1990||32.52 billions of tons|
|1995||33.81 billions of tons|
|2000||35.84 billions of tons|
|2005||40.57 billions of tons|
|2010||44.88 billions of tons|
|2015||46.87 billions of tons|
|2019||49.76 billions of tons|
In the U.S., according to EPA, below are the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 by the country’s different sectors:
|Economic Sectors (U.S.)||Percentage of GHG Emissions (2020)|
|Electric Power||25 percent|
|Commercial and Residential||13 percent|
|Land Use and Forestry||13 percent|
In 2019, according to the World Population Review, the total greenhouse gas emission of the U.S. was 4.7 billion metric tons. For comparison, China’s total GHG emission was 9.8 billion metric tons.
Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier - which is as big as the state of Florida - melts faster than it did before (or some 5,500 years ago).
As the Thwaites Glacier continues to melt, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) said that sea levels rise by 4 percent every year.
Several online sources reported how the alpine glaciers melt from the current heat wave in Europe.
In the tourism sector, for example, ski resorts already incurred huge financial losses.
The BBC reported that the melting of the glaciers in Switzerland can badly impact the water supply in Europe.
According to a 2019 article by the Scientific American, western Canada’s glaciers have been melting five times faster than they did in 2000.
Since 2000, the glaciers in the western part of this continent have already lost an estimated 117 billion tons of ice.
It does not even include the ones lost by those glaciers in Alaska.
If ever sea levels will just rise by 1.5 meters (5 feet) because of the continuous melting of glaciers, some 226 million people across the globe will drown.
That’s based on the data published in February 2022 by The Swiftest, a San Francisco-based site that makes insurance industry research.
It added that the 135-meter-high London Eye, an observation wheel and a popular tourist attraction near the River Thames, will be completely submerged.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it’s like a domino effect. When glaciers melt, the sea levels rise. When they rise, they can cause coastal erosion.
The WWF added:
Ninety-five percent of the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic is already gone.
Moreover, storm surge, typhoons, and hurricanes can become even stronger (and therefore can wreak more havoc).
As Time reported in May 2022, Hurricane Ida (August 26-September 4, 2021) caused damages amounting to over $75 billion. In Venezuela, 107 died.
Can the full-blown effects of glacial melting on humans be experienced with such a little warning, too?
The site Earth Reminder suggests the following simple course of actions:
1. Conserve electricity. It could be as basic as turning off the lights and electric appliances when they’re not in use (better unplug them, too).
2. Conserve water. Fix leaking faucets immediately. Avoid using a hose when washing your car.
3. Use public transportation, go biking, or walk whenever possible.
4. Plant trees. Grow vegetables in your garden.
5. Avoid using plastic utensils, cups, bags, etc.
According to a Time article published in May 2022, they’re melting because of greenhouse gas emissions.
Geologist Reed Scherer told Discovery Magazine that some global climate models estimated that it could take 500 years for all the ice sheets in the Antarctic to melt.
And, if such a tragedy of colossal proportions ever happens, the sea levels across the world could increase up to 20 feet.
According to The Swiftest, that could happen to cities in 36 countries. The data, however, didn’t mention what year the cities could be underwater.
The first ten cities that could go underwater based on their population size are:
- Tokyo, Japan
- Mumbai, India
- New York City, USA
- Osaka, Japan
- Istanbul, Turkey
- Kolkata, India
- Bangkok, Thailand
- Jakarta, Indonesia
- London, U.K.
- Dhaka, Bangladesh
It seems the bigger the glaciers are, the bigger the probable problems are.
But they don’t melt faster than they’re supposed to be because of purely natural occurrences.
Humans need to temper their needs and be more cautious with their actions, particularly those that directly impact the environment.
As glaciers melt, mankind - God forbid - could all someday drown in misery, literally and figuratively speaking.