Climate Action

Why fast melting of glaciers poses a grim situation for the global population

The fast melting of glaciers is the most visible indicator of climate change

The fast melting of glaciers is the most visible indicator of climate change Image: Unsplash/Agustín Lautaro

Peter Ruegg
Writer, ETH Zurich
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How to Save the Planet

  • A new study on the melting of glaciers shows that glaciers have quickly lost thickness and mass over the past two decades.
  • Between 2000 and 2019, the world’s glaciers lost a total of 267 gigatonnes (294.3 billion tons) of ice per year on average.
  • The situation in the Himalayas is 'particularly worrying' because it could lead to food and water shortages in countries such as India and Bangladesh.

Glaciers are a sensitive indicator of climate change—and one that can be easily observed. Regardless of altitude or latitude, the rate of melting of glaciers has been since the mid-​20th century.

Until now, however, the full extent of ice loss has only been partially measured and understood.

The new study on global glacier retreat in Nature is the first to include all the world’s glaciers—around 220,000 in total—excluding the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The study’s spatial and temporal resolution is unprecedented.

Have you read?

The pace of melting of glaciers

What was once permanent ice has declined in volume almost everywhere around the globe. Between 2000 and 2019, the world’s glaciers lost a total of 267 gigatonnes (294.3 billion tons) of ice per year on average—an amount that could have submerged the entire surface area of Switzerland under six meters (19 feet) of water every year.

The loss of glacial mass also accelerated sharply during this period. Between 2000 and 2004, glaciers lost 227 gigatonnes (250.225 billion tons) of ice per year, but between 2015 and 2019, the lost mass amounted to 298 gigatonnes (328.5 billion tons) annually. Glacial melt caused up to 21% of the observed rise in sea levels during this period—some 0.74 millimetres (0.029 inches) a year.

Himalayan glaciers 'particularly worrying'

Nearly half of the rise in sea levels is attributable to the thermal expansion of water as it heats up, with meltwaters from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and changes in terrestrial water storage accounting for the remaining third.

Among the fastest melting glaciers are those in Alaska, Iceland, and the Alps. The melting of glaciers situation is also having a profound effect on the glacial Pamir mountains, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas.

“The situation in the Himalayas is particularly worrying,” explains lead author Romain Hugonnet, a researcher at ETH Zurich and the University of Toulouse. “During the dry season, glacial meltwater is an important source that feeds major waterways such as the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Indus rivers.

Statistics for melting of glaciers from 2000 to 2019
Statistics for melting of glaciers from 2000 to 2019 Image: Nature

“Right now, this increased melting acts as a buffer for people living in the region, but if Himalayan glacier shrinkage keeps accelerating, populous countries like India and Bangladesh could face water or food shortages in a few decades.”

Need for more accurate models to check the melting of glaciers

The findings of this study can improve hydrological models and be used to make more accurate predictions on a global and local scales—for instance, to estimate how much Himalayan glacier meltwater one can anticipate over the next few decades.

To their surprise, the researchers also identified areas where the rate of melting of glaciers slowed between 2000 and 2019, such as on Greenland‘s east coast and in Iceland and Scandinavia. They attribute this divergent pattern to a weather anomaly in the North Atlantic that caused higher precipitation and lower temperatures between 2010 and 2019, thereby slowing ice loss.

The researchers also discovered that the phenomenon known as the Karakoram anomaly is disappearing. Prior to 2010, glaciers in the Karakoram mountain range were stable—and in some cases, even growing. However, the researchers’ analysis revealed that the melting of glaciers is happening at a fast pace at the Karakoram glaciers as well.

As a basis for the study, the research team used imagery captured on board NASA’s Terra satellite, which has orbited the Earth once every 100 minutes since 1999 at an altitude of nearly 700 kilometers (434.96 miles). Terra is home to ASTER, a multispectral imager with two cameras that record pairs of stereo images, allowing researchers to create high-resolution digital elevation models of all the world’s glaciers. The team used the full archive of ASTER images to reconstruct a time series of glacial elevation, which enabled them to calculate changes in the thickness and mass of the ice over time.

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Romain Hugonnet, a doctoral student at ETH Zurich and the University of Toulouse, is the study’s lead author. He worked on this project for nearly three years and spent 18 months analyzing the satellite data. To process the data, the researchers used a supercomputer at the University of Northern British Columbia.

The study’s findings will be included in the next Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is due to be published later this year.

“Our findings on the melting of glaciers are important on a political level. The world really needs to act now to prevent the worst-case climate change scenario,” says coauthor Daniel Farinotti, head of the glaciology group at ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL.

Additional coauthors are from Ulster University, the University of Oslo, and the University of Northern British Columbia.

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