Study Finds Glaciers Are Melting Faster Than Ever

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The world’s glaciers are melting faster than ever before, and it’s having significant consequences on the oceans, wildlife, and our coastlines. A study published Wednesday found that nearly all the world’s glaciers are melting, and some are withering at rates 31 percent higher than 15 years ago. What’s worse, half of this glacial loss is happening in the U.S. and Canada. Already some glaciers have disappeared entirely, and experts are placing the blame on the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. Melting has been increasing in a way that “mirrors” global temperature rise and experts hope that with international efforts to cut fossil fuel use, melting will decrease. 

Why This Matters: As glaciers melt, habitats for critical species disappear, water sources deplete, coastlines recede, and dangerous glacial bursts threaten communities.

  • People around the world rely on glacier melt for daily water, but melting can create glacial bursts, sending cascades of water through communities, flooding homes, and in some cases, killing thousands.

These findings should be further motivation for governments seeking to cut carbon emissions while mitigating sea level rise and climate disaster. Since most of this melting is occurring in North America, the health and safety of glaciers, wildlife, and humans rest greatly in the hands of Americans and President Biden’s climate plan.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Using 20 years of data, scientists calculated that the world’s 220,000 mountain glaciers are losing more than 328 billion tons of ice and snow per year, enough to put Switzerland under 24 additional feet of water annually. That’s much faster than from 2000 to 2004 when glaciers lost 250 billion tons of snow and ice per year. “Ten years ago, we were saying that the glaciers are the indicator of climate change, but now actually they’ve become a memorial of the climate crisis,” said World Glacier Monitoring Service Director Michael Zemp. 

The study used 3D satellite imagery to examine all glaciers not connected to Greenland or the Arctic. Previously, researchers used gravity measurements from orbit or only used a sample of earth’s glaciers, but this new technology paints a much more accurate and alarming picture. Based on their findings, experts worry that there may be an increase in glacial bursts like the one that killed dozens in Northern India earlier this year. But they say the real threat comes from rising sea levels. Already, 21 percent of sea-level rise is caused by glacial melt. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that sea-level rise is going to be a bigger and bigger problem as we move through the 21st century,” said National Snow and Ice Data Center Director Mark Serreze.  

Some of the fastest melting is happening in Alaska, where a 37-year time-lapse from Google shows the Columbia Glacier receding with horrifying speed. President Biden has reversed some of the Trump administration’s arctic policies, including reversing an executive order to open up 130 million acres to oil drilling. Advocates say that more can be done and that protecting the arctic has a multitude of benefits. Erik Grafe of EarthJustice explains, “as the Biden administration considers its next steps, it should build on these foundations, end fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters, and embrace a clean energy future that does not come at the expense of wildlife and our natural heritage.”

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