Most of World's Glaciers Might Not Make It Much Longer

Scientists say if current climate-change trends hold, two-thirds of them could melt by end of century
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 7, 2023 5:30 AM CST
Most of World's Glaciers Might Not Make It Much Longer
This combination of photos from Sept. 14, 1986, left, and Aug. 1, 2019, shows the shrinking of the Okjokull Glacier in west-central Iceland. A geological map from 1901 estimated Okjokull spanned an area of about 15 square miles. In 1978, aerial photography showed the glacier was 1 square mile. in 2019,...   (NASA via AP, File)

The world's glaciers are shrinking and disappearing faster than scientists thought, with two-thirds of them projected to melt out of existence by the end of the century if current climate change trends hold, according to a new study. But if the world can limit future warming to just a few more tenths of a degree and fulfill international goals—technically possible but unlikely, according to many scientists—then slightly less than half the globe's glaciers will disappear, said the same study, per the AP. Mostly small but well-known glaciers are marching to extinction, study authors said. In an also unlikely worst-case scenario of several degrees of warming, 83% of the world's glaciers would likely disappear by the year 2100, study authors said.

The study in Thursday's Science journal examined all of the globe's 215,000 land-based glaciers—not counting those on ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica—in a more comprehensive way than past studies. Scientists then used computer simulations to calculate, using different levels of warming, how many glaciers would disappear, how many trillions of tons of ice would melt, and how much it would contribute to sea level rise. The world is now on track for a 4.9-degree Fahrenheit temperature rise since preindustrial times, which by the year 2100 means losing 32% of the world's glacier mass, or 48.5 trillion metric tons of ice, as well as 68% of the glaciers disappearing. That would increase sea level rise by 4.5 inches, in addition to seas already getting larger from melting ice sheets and warmer water, said study lead author David Rounce.

"No matter what, we're going to lose a lot of the glaciers," Rounce, a glaciologist and engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said. "But we have the ability to make a difference by limiting how many glaciers we lose." Projected ice loss by 2100 ranges from 38.7 trillion metric tons to 64.4 trillion tons, depending on how much the globe warms and how much coal, oil, and gas is burned, according to the study. The study calculates that all that melting ice will add anywhere from 3.5 inches in the best case to 6.5 inches in the worst case to the world's sea level, 4% to 14% more than previous projections. A 4.5-inch sea level rise from glaciers would mean more than 10 million people around the world—and more than 100,000 people in the United States—would be living below the high tide line who otherwise would be above it, said sea level rise researcher Ben Strauss, CEO of Climate Central.

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Scientists say future sea level rise will be driven more by melting ice sheets than glaciers. But the loss of glaciers is about more than rising seas. It means shrinking water supplies for a big chunk of the world's population, more risk from flood events from melting glaciers, and about losing historic ice-covered spots, including in Alaska, the Alps, and even near Mount Everest's base camp, several scientists say. "For places like the Alps or Iceland ... glaciers are part of what makes these landscapes so special," said National Snow and Ice Data Center Director Mark Serreze, who wasn't part of the study but praised it. "As they lose their ice, in a sense they also lose their soul."

(More melting glaciers stories.)

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