Updated: Jun 26, 2021
Where do you see yourself in the year 2050? For most of us, this isn’t an easy question to answer. There are so many changing variables involved in predicting the future. The question, however, has become less difficult to answer for the world's mountain glaciers which, according to data released last year, are melting at accelerating rates.
For 20 years, a NASA satellite named Terra took images of 217,175 glaciers across the globe with a camera called ASTER and created a three-dimensional depiction of each glacier. The results were compiled and studied by researchers in Canada, France, Norway and Switzerland. It took a supercomputer at the University of Northern British Columbia a year to sort through the data for these glaciers. The results of this study have greatly reduced scientific uncertainty about the future of these bodies of ice.
In July of 2020, the study was published with sobering results: the rate of annual melting from these glaciers is happening faster than scientists previously thought. Between the years 2000 to 2004, these glaciers lost about 227 billion metric tons of ice every year, and from 2015 to 2019, the rate increased to 298 billion tons. The researchers attribute this increase in meltwater to higher temperatures and rates of precipitation associated with human-induced climate change. Low altitude mountain glaciers are predicted to nearly disappear by 2050.
Meltwater from ice and snowpack enters the ocean through rivers and streams, accounting for one fifth of sea level rise in the past 20 years. Within the coming decades, this rise in sea levels, and more frequent and more destructive storms associated with global warming, will threaten coastal regions. In addition, melting snow from mountain glaciers across the world supply millions of people with fresh drinking water, the disappearance of this vital resource would cause regional instability due to water shortage. Jonathan Bamber, a physicist and professor at the School of Geographical Sciences, warns that “Glaciers are on the way out, with profound impacts for water resources, natural hazards, sea level rise, tourism, and local livelihoods.” This sentiment, although a warning, should be interpreted as a call to action.
Discourse surrounding how best to protect and preserve glaciers compares the efficacy of geoengineering glaciers with focusing all efforts on reducing carbon emissions. The route of geoengineering could come in many forms: blocking warmer water, supporting ice shelves, or building walls to block descending glaciers. These tactics are currently being designed for polar glaciers, but could be re-engineered for mountain glaciers. Efforts to stop accelerating glacier melt should be made on both fronts, reductions in carbon emissions and other agitatory factors must be made while simultaneously using technology to give ourselves more time.