It’s becoming common knowledge that our planet’s glaciers are shrinking—some are even disappearing altogether. In this article, we’ll discuss what causes this, why it’s such an issue1, and how we can address it.
A combination of natural and human aspects triggers the unfortunate progress of glacial loss2. Let’s take a look at some of the main factors below.
Climate change is the most obvious factor contributing to glacier loss—rising temperatures due to global warming trigger glaciers to melt since they are susceptible to temperature change. Even just a tiny increase in global temperatures can have devastating impacts on glaciers.
Glaciers rely on snowfall to maintain their mass. Therefore, a reduction in snowfall and changing precipitation patterns can trigger decreased accumulation.
Specific human actions3, such as deforestation and the release of gas emissions, contribute to natural climate change by trapping heat in our atmosphere. The atmospheric and oceanic reflection of these gasses not only warms the atmosphere but the water below, both hitting glaciers with new warming reduction patterns.
The impact of glacier loss may be more severe than you’d expect.
Glacier loss causes sea levels to rise. Our planet’s glaciers contain enough ice to increase sea levels by around half a meter, which could significantly endanger our future with severe flood and storm risks, and other natural events that could devastate human and animal lives.
Glacier loss slows our oceanic currents and modifies our climate. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is on its way to a heavy collapse4 by the end of this century. This is due to the increase in ice loss in Greenland, which then pushes high amounts of freshwater into the Atlantic, disrupting the stable current. This could cause extreme weather events to shake up our world and disrupt habitats.
Unsurprisingly, glacier loss could also endanger countless aquatic and terrestrial animal species since glaciers can be natural habitats—causing high breeding failures5, habitat loss, depletion of food and shelter resources, and the potential extinction of many.
The thawing of glaciers could also lead to a smaller source of freshwater, which can readily be consumed by our planet’s population and utilized for irrigation.
Some scientists believe that melting glaciers could cause a new ice age6. As Antarctic glaciers start to melt, moving further away from Antarctica, this causes freshwater sources to move from the Southern Ocean to the Atlantic. From this, ocean circulation patterns modify, pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and decreasing the greenhouse effect. This could potentially drive our planet into an ice-age environment.
Now that you know what causes glacier loss and why it’s such an extensive problem, it may be worth looking at what we can do to combat it.
Since GHG emissions are the main driver of the problem, it’s the most obvious solution to prevent glacier loss by reducing said emissions. They can be reduced in the commercial, agriculture, and transportation industry. We could also implement sustainable practices that switch out non-renewable sources for renewable energy usage and efficiency.
Black carbon emissions can blacken glacier surfaces and encourage them to melt. Therefore, reducing industrial emissions and developing cleaner cooking technologies can decrease black carbon output.
We should implement sustainable water resource management strategies in locations where glaciers are a crucial freshwater source. Approaches can include water conservation and efficient irrigation techniques.
Glacial lake management strategies could mitigate risks connected with glacial lake outburst floods. This could decrease the negative impact of glacier loss by building durable infrastructure, conducting strict risk assessments, and implementing early warning systems.
Humans should engage and integrate more sustainable practices to limit their environmental impact. Sustainable tourism can reduce glacier loss and protect our ecosystems compared to standard tourism and mountaineering practices.
Continuous scientific research into glaciers can offer valuable insights into what causes glacier melting and the best strategies we could execute to reduce the problem.
By raising awareness of glacier loss and how much of an environmental issue it is, we can educate the public on how to help reduce the problem. For example, implementing glacier loss into school curriculums and public education campaigns can effectively inform people and encourage them to take action.
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