Climate change can be hard to see unless it’s right in front of your eyes; for people living near glaciers that’s exactly the case. Glaciers have been melting since the start of the Industrial Revolution but in the past few decades the rate of thaw has sped up dramatically. While this obviously impacts winter sports, the real disaster is for communities who rely on healthy glaciers for clean water, hydro-electric supplies, and irrigation for agriculture. For them the future looks bleak.
According to a Swiss study published in 2019, thanks to global warming, our planet’s glaciers continue to melt away, losing up to 390 billion tons of ice and snow per year between them.
Scientists calculate that if all of the glacier ice on Earth were to melt sea levels surge by about 80 metres (270 feet) and ‘flood every coastal city on the planet’. It’s currently difficult to see how this wont ultimately happen.
Below you’ll find glacier health reports:
Australia is home to at least 18 glaciers located on Heard Island, an isolated 2745m high volcano, and the McDonald Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, part of Antarctica. Studies of these over the past two decades have revealed rapid glacier melt.
Brown Glacier, Australia
In a study published in 2008 “Glacier Recession on Heard Island, Southern Indian Ocean” Douglas Thost and Martin Truffer found glacier retreat has been widespread on Heard Island since the first observations in 1947. They estimated the Brown Glacier had lost around 29% of is mass between 1947 and 2004 decreasing in length from an estimated 6.18km to 4.38km and losing thickness too. The mass loss was consistent with a +0.9 °C warming over the same time span. The study further found that in the three year period at the end of the study from December 2000 to December 2003 the speed of ice loss had accelerated to more than double the 57 year average rate.
According to a 2016 study, Austrian glaciers lost 22 percent of their total volume in a 10-year span, between 2006 and 2016.
The Molltal glacier is the only glacier on the southern side of Austria’s Alps. It has, arguably, the world’s third longest ski season (behind year-round Hintertux and Zermatt), opening from June to May with a 5-6 week closure period. It could be argued that when it opens each June it’s the first to open for each new season. Sadly it has had to close for a period in most recent summers after all the snow cover melted from the glacial ice.
There’s a battle underway to preserve one of the world’s remaining major summer ski glaciers. The Stubai Glacier lost 33% loss in its area in the four decades between 1969 and 2009 shrinking from 1.72 to 1.15 square kilometers (Aberman and others, 2009). In 2017 an outburst flood from a glacial lake showed one of the dangers ahead, according to Kay Helfricht, a researcher with the Austria-based Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research. The flood, triggered by a heavy rainstorm, scoured out a new outflow channel from the lake and damaged homes in the valley below.
The former world’s highest ski area, 5,300 metres up on an 18,000 year old ‘permanent’ snow field in the Andes was accessed by a specially constructed road heroically built by the Bolivians in the 1930s. The ski area closed in 2009 after the last of the snow melted away faster than expected. The loss of glaciers in the region is a bigger problem for water supplies, agriculture and hydro-electric plants.
Chile has one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water outside the north and south poles, but the abundant glaciers that are the source of that precious commodity are melting fast. Rising temperatures and droughts are escalating the melting of Chile’s ice masses. Olivares Alfa, one of the largest glaciers in central Chile, used to be one single glacier system covering this whole valley; now it’s pulled back so much that it’s divided into four or five smaller glaciers. Built up over thousands of years, the ice mass is now retreating 1m per year on average. Less than two decades from now, some glaciers will have disappeared, while the total volume of all glaciers in Chile will have shrunk by half by the end of the century. More than 7 million people living in and around the capital, Santiago, rely on the glaciers to feed most of their water supply in times of drought.
Ecuador could lose two of its seven glaciers over the next few years thanks to global warming, a phenomenon that worries experts because it would alter the ecosystem and its effect on the nation’s water supply and humidity. Of the country’s 7 glaciers the most imminent threat concerns the glaciers of Carihuairazo and southern Iliniza. This increase has already left obvious signs that temperatures are changing, but according to another expert, Bolivar Caceres of the National Meteorological and Hydrological Institute , the threat is imminent. In 2019 it was reported that 96 percent of the surface of Carihuairazo has melted, which means it could disappear by 2024. “Up to the end of 2018, an average nationwide loss of 53 percent of glacier coverage was recorded,” said the expert, adding that the height at which it was on average cold enough for glaciers to recover was now up to 5,120 metres (16,798 feet) above sea level but with Carihuairazo at 5,025 meters high, and the Iliniza is 4,750, so the two glaciers are in a “state of loss for which no recovery exists.”
Chamonix, La Vallée Blanche (Géant Glacier / Mer de Glace)
The number of glaciers able to offer summer skiing in the Alps has dropped from more than 40 in the 1990s to less than 20, with much shorter seasons and smaller surfaces, now. One of the most clearly visible signs of this thaw can be witnessed at the famous Valley Blanche above Chamonix, the world’s longest lift-accessed ski run. At the end of the main run, at the bottom of the glacier, there were, 30 years ago, just three steps up from the snow-covered blue ice surface to the lift up to Monenvers for the train ride back to Chamonix. By 2000 the declining thickness of the glacier meant that gap had grown to 118 steps, by 2010 it was a thigh-destroying 320 steps in your ski boots and today we are nearly at 400. The climb out at the end of the Vallee Blanche run is now one of its greatest challenges for skiers and snowboarders.
A study conducted by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in 2015 revealed that glaciers in the German state of Bavaria are shrinking rapidly due to rising global temperatures. It found that the acreage covered by ice on the “Blaueis” and “Suedlicher Schneeferner” glaciers had more than halved over the past fifty years. The study has warned that the four glaciers could disappear entirely within the next twenty years, leaving the “Hoellentalferner” field on the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, as the only remaining glacier in the country. Here the glacier has been covered by a protective shield (a huge reflective tarpaulin) every summer for more than 25 years which has slowed but not stopped the rate of thaw. Based on laser scans, the resort estimates the glacier has lost 40 metres in thickness over the last 40 years.
The Greenland Ice Sheet
Greenland is covered in glaciers which together form the country’s ice sheet. It’s the second largest area of ice in the world after Antarctica. The glaciers have been held in balance for centuries with fresh snowfall each winter replenishing summer melted ice …until recent times when, most years now, more ice is lost than is replenished. Temperatures at the sheet’s highest point have been below freezing for 700 years on all but three occasions – two of them in the past decade, July 2012 and August 2019. On the latter occasion the glacier-covered island lost 12.5 billion tons of ice in one day, climate scientists calculated. They reckon that’s enough to cover all of Florida with almost five inches of water, or, in metric units, enough to cover Germany with almost 7cm of water or Denmark with 50cm of water. They say the rate of thaw of the Greenland ice sheet is currently running at the accelerated rated they had not expected until the 2070s.
The former Okjokull glacier in Iceland made world headlines in summer 2019 when a plaque was erected in its memory. Believed to have been around 700 years old it was declared dead in 2014 when it got so small due to climate change melting it stopped moving. The ‘death’ of the glacier was considered particularly significant as it was originally larger than many of the small glaciers around the world that have already disappeared due to climate change. The rest of Iceland’s glaciers are expected to go the same way over the next 200 years.
Indonesia had four glaciers at the start of this century but is now down to three as the The Meren Glacier on the summit of Puncak Jaya disappeared at some point before the end of 2000, probably in the late 1990s. The other three glaciers, Carstensz, West Northwall Firn and East Northwall Firn are also all on Puncak Jaya, Indonesia’s highest mountain at 4884m, and are also all retreating rapidly. Australian adventurer and conservationist Tim Jarvis has visited the glaciers of Puncak Jaya. He heads a project called 25zero which is charting the disappearing icefields in six equatorial nations: Ecuador, Colombia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Indonesia. He believes most of those glaciers will be gone within 25 years.
In 2009 the Italian Glacier Committee noted that of the country’s then 111 glaciers 95 were retreating and 11 appeared stationary with two advancing. Since then it has got warmer.
The Presena Glacier usually offers skiing in to late spring and is one of three Italian areas still open for snowsports then. The glacier lost a third of its volume in less than two decades between 1993 and 2011. Since 2008 it has joined other Alpine glaciers in having a cover put over sections of it in the summer months, covering 90,000sqm. This reduces the rate of thaw by around 60%. It has been observed that during some hot summers snow cover which used to protect it melts away completely leaving the ice in areas not artificially covered exposed to direct summer sunshine.
Until very recently there were no known glaciers in Japan, but between 2009 and 2011 a team using “ice radar” found two glaciers on Mount Tsurugi and one on Mount Tateyama in the country’s Hida Mountains or Northern Alps. The masses are 27 to 30 meters deep and 400 to 1,200 metres long and moving between 10 and 30cm a month. In July 2018 a heatwave which killed 1,032 people, saw temperatures reach 41.1C, the highest temperature ever recorded in Japan. Torrential rains also triggered landslides and the worst flooding in decades. A 2019 study determined the temperature and resulting weather could not have happened without man-made temperature rises.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that only 10 of the 18 glaciers that covered Mt Kenya’s summit a century ago remain, leaving less than one third of the previous ice cover. The Lewis Glacier, the largest on Mt Kenya, has decreased by 90% in volume since 1934, with the highest rates of ice volume loss occurring since the turn of the century.
The Potanin Glacier is the longest glacier in Mongolia at 14 kilometres and runs through in the Altai Tavan Bogd and Altai Mountains. As with most other glaciers it is shrinking, seen to be shortening at a rate of 15 metres a year in a six year study to 2009 and also thinning by 2.6 meters per year.
Two-thirds of Himalayan glaciers – the world’s “Third Pole” – could melt by 2100 if global emissions are not sharply reduced, scientists warned in a major study published in 2019. Even if the most ambitious Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is achieved, one-third of the glaciers would disappear, according to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment. Glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region are a critical water source for some 250 million people in the mountains, as well as to 1.65 billion others in the river valleys below, the 650-page report said. Five years in the making, the report was published by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal, one of eight countries on the front line. More than 350 researchers and policy experts, 185 organisations, 210 authors, 20 editors and 125 external reviewers contributed to its completion.
There are 2,535 glaciers in Norway. Jostedalsbreen (474 square kilometers), Vestre Svartisen (219 square kilometers) and Søndre Folgefonna (164 square kilometers) are the nation’s largest.. The total area covered by glaciers has decreased by 11 percent in the last 30 years according to the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO). 326 square kilometres have disappeared since the mid-1980s. If warming continues at the present rate scientists expect all of the country’s glaciers will have melted away by 2100. If the world manages to meet the Paris Climate Change target it could be ‘only’ 60%.
Glaciologist Miriam Jackson, Norway’s state waterways and energy directorate NVE, has been studying Engabreen, an arm of the glacier Svartisen, for more than 20 years. During that time it has retreated more than 500 metres with the rate of melt rapidly accelerating in recent summers, including a 140 metre retreat in 2018 alone.
“We talked for a long time that what we’re seeing today could happen, and now it is,” Jackson told the Dagsavisen newspaper. “And it can go very fast.”
Norway’s third largest glacier is also home to one of the country’s three summer ski areas. In 2019 Folgefonna’s closure came at a record early date in July, having planned to stay open to September, with its manager claiming that he’d never seen such summer melting, calling it “extreme.”
Located up by the Arctic Ocean in Northeastern Russia, the outlet glacier of Vavilov Ice Cap suddenly went from sliding 20 metres per year to 20 metres per day in spring 2013. “If this continues, we could be witnessing the demise of this ice cap. Already, Vavilov has thinned enough that snow has stopped accumulating on its upper reaches, and it is a small ice cap in the first place. This event has forced us to rethink how cold-based glaciers work. It may be that they can respond more quickly to warming climate or changes at their bases than we have thought,” said glaciologist Michael Willis.
Sweden’s former highest point lost its designation in July 2018 after high temperatures over 20C above 2,000 metres altitude melted four metres of snow depth between July 2 and July 31 that year.
“This glacier is a symbol for all the glaciers in the world. This whole environment is melting, the snow is melting, and it affects the entire ecosystem: the plants, the animals, the climate, everything,” Stockholm University geography professor Gunhild Ninis Rosqvist, who is also the head of the Tarfala research station near Kebnekaise told AFP, adding, “It looked different this year. The snow was melting, the glacier surface has never been as low as it is now. I saw meltwater trickling down the sides, I’ve never seen that before,” Dr Rosqvist said.
The glacier, whose height has been measured since 1880, had previously been melting by an average one metre every year over the past two decades, according to Stockholm University.
Europe’s largest glacier has lost more than two miles of its size over the past 150 years but the rate of thaw has accelerated dramatically in recent years, with more than half of that loss occurring since the 1980s, as almost every summer now sees record (or near record) warm temperatures. If it continues to melt at this current rate, by the end of this century the surface of the Aletsch Glacier could shrivel from 118 square kilometres (2010) to 35km2, leaving a volume of ice of 1.7 cubic kilometres or less than 10% its current volume, warns the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (BAFU).
The Morteratsch glacier has retreated more than 2.8 km over the past 170 years. Back in 1850 the snout of the glacier reached a point that is today where the Pontresina railway station is located. Much of the loss has happened in recent years, during the last 20 years the glacier front retreated on average by 44 metres per year. In 2018 the glacier covered an area of approximately 7.5 km2. A new project conceived by a glaciologist aims to stop further decline of the glacier by using snowmaking (a new system that uses water force rather than electric power to operate) to protect it.
Hunter Mountain Glaciers, Alaska
A team of researchers extracted ice cores from the glaciers on Mt. Hunter, in Alaska. The ice cores held snow and ice from as far back as 400 years. The researchers showed that the amount of water melt currently is 60 times greater than it was prior to 1850. They also found that the summertime temperature changes on Mt. Hunter are almost 2°C per century (about 3.5°F). To put this in perspective, the temperatures are rising about twice as fast as global temperatures.
Glaciers in western North America are melting four times faster in the last decade, compared to the previous one, according to a University of Washington 2019 study. The authors believe that changes in the jet stream have exacerbated the long-term effects of climate change. The authors got their data by comparing satellite images of glaciers from 2000 to 2009 and from 2009 to 2018.